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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More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:
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- Serendipity in project management is rare, in part, because we're under too much pressure to see it.
If we can reduce the pressure, wonderful things happen.
- Astonishing Successes
- When we have successes that surprise us, we do feel good, but beyond that, our reactions are sometimes
self-defeating. What happens when we experience unanticipated success, and how can we handle it better?
- The Perils of Piecemeal Analysis: Content
- A team member proposes a solution to the latest show-stopping near-disaster. After extended discussion,
the team decides whether or not to pursue the idea. It's a costly approach, because too often it leads
us to reject unnecessarily some perfectly sound proposals, and to accept others we shouldn't have.
- Why Sidebars Happen
- Sidebar conversations between meeting participants, conducted while someone else has the floor, are
a distracting form of disorder that can waste time and reduce meeting effectiveness. Why do sidebars happen?
- Contextual Causes of Conflict: I
- When destructive conflict erupts, we usually hold responsible only the people directly involved. But
the choices of others, and general circumstances, can be the real causes of destructive conflict.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming April 8: The New Virtual Meeting: Digressions
- The bane of meetings everywhere, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, has been digressions. But there are reasons to expect the incidence of digressions in meetings to increase now. What reasons could there be, and what can we do about digressions? Available here and by RSS on April 8.
- And on April 15: Incompetence: Traps and Snares
- Sometimes people judge as incompetent colleagues who are unprepared to carry out their responsibilities. Some of these "incompetents" are trapped or ensnared in incompetence, unable to acquire the ability to do their jobs. Available here and by RSS on April 15.
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