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
The article you've been reading is an archived issue of Point Lookout, my weekly newsletter. I've been publishing it since January, 2001, free to all subscribers, over the Web, and via RSS. You can help keep it free by donating either as an individual or as an organization. You'll receive in return my sincere thanks — and the comfort of knowing that you've helped to propagate insights and perspectives that can help make our workplaces a little more human-friendly. More
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 September 27: On Working Breaks in Meetings
- When we convene a meeting to work a problem, we sometimes find that progress is stalled. Taking a break to allow a subgroup to work part of the problem can be key to finding simple, elegant solutions rapidly. Choosing the subgroup is only the first step. Available here and by RSS on September 27.
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- Conversational narcissism is a set of behaviors that participants use to focus the exchange on their own self-interest rather than the shared objective. This post emphasizes the role of these behaviors in advancing a narcissist's sense of self-importance. Available here and by RSS on October 4.
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