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No one interrupts a sprinter at work

No work interruptions 

Are work interruptions what work is today? I was coaching someone recently who was having a problem with “disjointedness”. Every time she started a piece of work – usually one that she needed a good run at, her work was interrupted by the usual suspects: Email. Phone calls. Colleagues. It’s how we work today. Work is a series of interruptions to what we’re supposed to be doing.

The solution was absurdly simple. I’ll come to that in a moment.

I did some digging into what effect these diversions have, and was gobsmacked by what I read in this paper – Fragmented Work, which also features in a more user friendly New York Times article here. Both were written in 2005, and I’m guessing things have only got worse in the last 8 years, but here’s what they saw in 1,000 hours of observing Homo Cubiculus.

Average time until interrupted – 11 minutes

Time to restart the task – 25 minutes

Time to get back to where you where – 8 minutes

This is staggering. 11 minutes of productive work. Then 33 minutes on hold. Then THREE minutes (because it took you 8 minutes to get back to where you were) of productive work before you get interrupted again. Rinse and repeat from 9 to 5.  Sisyphus was in a similar line of work. It’s no wonder we feel disjointed.

It gets worse. It’s only a theory, but it feels true to me, that there are two types of schedule: Managing and Making. Managers work in one hour blocks of time, it’s seldom that they need to spend a whole day at one task. Makers, on the other hand, need to get immersed on their work to get in flow. Makers write computer code, they draft contracts, they put bid documents together – they do stuff that takes more than an hour at a stretch to complete. An interruption to a Maker can ruin their whole day.

This is serious shit. It doesn’t even include the self-imposed diversions, or the myth of multi-tasking, to which the same “restart” rules apply. It doesn’t take account of a person’s Time Perspective either. Present Hedonists are renowned for their ability to be diverted from a goal by pretty much any temptation put in front of them, even before cats and You Tube double-teamed them.

How does the coaching story end?

We agreed she try a “sprint” of 45 minutes, free of any distraction, using a desk toy (a stress ball, appropriately enough) to signal to her colleagues that she shouldn’t be interrupted. Email notifications off. Phones diverted to voice mail. Work for 45 minutes, then stop and reflect for a few minutes at the end, to note where the external diversions came from, and what to adjust next time. Anyone can be unavailable for 45 minutes without the business collapsing.

What she found was that colleagues in the immediate vicinity got the signal and cooperated. It was harder to put off more senior people, because their status seems to give them priority. Everyone was sceptical that it would work at all. These are all interesting observations. They tell us how a culture will tend to hold habits in place, however much an individual worker wants to change, and that Time Management is a systemic problem, rather than one person’s.

But look at the benefits:

  1. She stops the disjointedness and has more control  over her work. So she’s happier.
  2. Productivity for that 45 minute sprint went up by 75%.
  3. Doing this twice a day, five days a week, effectively gives her company an extra working day. Everyone’s happy.

Please tell me why isn’t everybody doing this? It’s embarrassingly simple. Why can’t everyone just concentrate for 45 minutes on one task, without interruptions?









Burying the Past

Stuck in the Past

Last time we examined the power of a Positive Past. A Negative Past can have an equally powerful effect. When we talk of people being “stuck in the past” – it’s a negative past that we’re thinking about. Incidentally, I think people can also be stuck in the Present and stuck in the Future – but that’s the subject of another blog.

In terms of the Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory, someone with a negative past will strongly agree with statements like “I think about the bad things that have happened to me in the past” and “It’s hard for me to forget unpleasant images of my youth”. In other words, they ruminate.

Just because someone has a high Past Negative, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they will be negative. Different people respond in different ways. We often see a high Past Negative linked to a high Future, where the subject is using the past as a motivating force to create a better future.  Sometimes it can be linked to high Present Hedonist behaviour – where perhaps the subject is blotting out the bad memories by having a good time, maybe too much of a good time.

So how do we deal with someone who can’t escape a negative past? Coaching often tends to focus on the present and the future and leaves difficult issues in the past to therapists or psychoanalysis. If indicated, we would refer a client to such a professional. However, there are simple techniques which we can use as interventions.

Using these techniques, it is possible to change our beliefs about the past, the stories we tell ourself about what happened, and the meaning we attribute to those stories. This doesn’t have to be done by reliving the past, it’s about rebalancing and re-framing the past, the present and the future, and not investing so much energy in ruminating on the past.

We use NLP for these kind of re-frame exercises, to write yourself a new story, one with a better ending (or even a better beginning), because our interpretation of events can change over time. Another favourite is the ABCD method. Adversity. Beliefs. Consequences. Disputation. When we meet a bad situation we come at it with a stock set of beliefs, which lead to an outcome. You can learn to reconfigure those beliefs by using Disputation – so you argue against your habitual self-talk. It needs a bit of help, but it’s a great new habit to form, if you want to escape that cycle of self-recrimination and regret, stop ruminating, and get yourself a new outcome.








Past, Present, Future

Time Perspectives

The Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory that we use in our Time Intelligence Report has two distinct flavours of the Past, Positive and Negative.

As concepts they’re self-explanatory. Is your past something you look back on fondly, or do you have bad memories of growing up? The surprising part is how powerfully having a positive past can affect your outlook in the present and the future.

Being positive about your past is a predictor of resilience and optimism. Martin Seligman, the principal founder of Positive Psychology discovered that an optimistic explanatory style was key to persistence. Believing that things will turn out well, despite setbacks, predicts success at school, in college and in work. In his book “Learned Optimism“, Seligman tells how he and his team successfully predicted US election results (primary and presidential) purely by analysing candidates’ speeches. The more they spoke of hope for the future, the more optimistic they were, the better chance they had of being elected.

Past positive people will get nostalgic about the good old days. They will surround themselves with photographs and souvenirs to prompt these good memories, and are the repositories of family stories and anecdotes. It’s possible to strengthen the positive links your past by keeping a gratitude diary, or just bringing to mind some good things that have happened, at the end of each day.

It’s common these days to assume that a tendency to think about the past is inevitably a bad thing – anyone “stuck in the past” will slow down our progress towards the future. They won’t be of any use looking backwards wearing their rose-tinted spectacles. The surprising truth is that those are the people you need when things start to go wrong on your project. Their roots go deep and they will suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, then bounce back.

Next time we’ll have a look at Past Negative.