When we switch from one task to another, it takes a while to get going on the new task — up to 15 minutes. And then it takes time to switch back. That's why fragmentation of your day reduces the time available for actual work. We get more done when we switch from one task to another less often.
Here are some tips for controlling fragmentation of your day.
- Limit your interruptible time
- Interruptions are very expensive. They force us to switch from whatever we're doing to assessing why we're being interrupted. Then we decide whether to defer the issue. If we defer, we have to schedule it, park it, or send it on its way. If we handle it, we switch yet again.
- Unless you're an air traffic controller or a first responder, limit your interruptible time to twenty or even thirty minutes per hour. Muzzle your personal hardware. Change your my-door-is-always-open policy to a specified-office-hours policy.
- Don't interrupt yourself
- After years of interruptions, and overloaded as we are, it's difficult to focus. Valuable thoughts — often irrelevant to the current task — pop up constantly, making focus impossible.
- When an extraneous idea appears, capture it on a mobile device or a notepad. Then quickly resume the current task. [Note added in 2012: use your tablet for this if you have one.]
- Configure your job
- After living lives filled
focus is impossible
- Our jobs are interrupt-infested. The more people we collaborate with, the more frequently we're interrupted. The more teams we own or belong to, the more interruptions we have to deal with.
- If you can, minimize the number of teams you own or belong to at any one time. If you're asked to participate in too many teams, start accounting for task switching by including it in your time estimates.
- Resolve ambiguity and confusion aggressively
- Not only are ambiguity and confusion sources of rework, but the task of clarifying becomes a reason to interrupt colleagues — with phone calls, email, or meetings.
- Become a clarity expert. The more clearly you communicate your own ideas, and the more clearly you understand others, the less frequently you'll have to refer to each other for clarification. And less frequent referrals mean less frequent interruptions.
Organizational leaders can help in two ways. Leaders can declare "quiet periods" — times during the day when we don't phone or visit each other. And leaders can minimize the total number of teams in the organization, and focus people on one or two teams at a time.
Sometimes we try to recover time by multi-tasking — we read email while on the phone, or text-message someone while we're attending a meeting. This often leads to a bad result, because multi-tasking is mostly a myth. What we actually do is serial single-tasking. To get more done, stick with one. Next in this series Top Next Issue
For more strategies for recovering time, see "Recovering Time: II," Point Lookout for March 16, 2005.
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming July 25: Exploiting Functional Fixedness: II
- A cognitive bias called functional fixedness causes difficulty in recognizing new uses for familiar things. It also makes for difficulty in recognizing devious uses of everyday behaviors. Here's Part II of a catalog of deviousness based on functional fixedness. Available here and by RSS on July 25.
- And on August 1: Strategies of Verbal Abusers
- Verbal abuse at work has special properties, because it takes place in an environment in which verbal abuse is supposedly proscribed. Yet verbal abuse does happen at work. Here are three strategies abusers rely on to avoid disciplinary action. Available here and by RSS on August 1.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
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