Interruptions at work can be maddening. Researchers at the University of California, Irvine, found after careful observation that the typical office worker is interrupted or switches tasks, on average, every three minutes and five seconds. And it can take 23 minutes and 15 seconds just to get back to where they left off. Jonathan Spira, author of “Overload! How Too Much Information Is Hazardous To Your Organization,” estimates that interruptions and information overload eat up 28 billion wasted hours a year, at a loss of almost $1 trillion to the U.S. economy.
Edward G. Brown, an efficiency and workflow consultant to such big-name financial firms as Merrill Lynch, Bank of America and Citibank, said a big source of these interruptions are “Time Bandits” – people who literally steal your time. The answer? Create what he calls “Time Locks”. He explains:
Q: Why look at interruptions?
Brown: I’ve worked with Fortune 500 companies for 38 years. After the economic downturn of 2008, I began to hear more and more that, after so much downsizing, people were saying there was simply too much to do, and simply not enough time to do it in.
Half the workers surveyed in 2008 felt there were too many tasks to complete in a typical work week. I began to work with these companies and found out, it’s not so much that they had too much to do, but with all the interruptions they had, they could not get to all the tasks they had to do.
Because of unnecessary, unwanted, and completely unproductive interruptions, between 40 and 60 percent of their time was completely wasted.
By allowing Time Bandits to steal others’ time, companies were shooting themselves in the foot. Workers were not only the recipients of interruption by their managers, but also suffered embarrassment and low morale because they couldn’t meet the deadlines the managers set.
Q: What’s the cost of those interruptions?
Brown: In the work we do, we hear, ‘My time isn’t really my own. I have walk-ins. I have call-ins. I have interruption after interruption. Others manage my time. I don’t.’ Research has found that, in the financial services industry, interruptions can take up to 238 minutes a day. Then you have to restart. That’s the loss of another 84 minutes. That leads to inefficiencies like momentum loss, do-overs because of errors. Stress and fatigue cost another 50 minutes.
That’s 372 minutes, or 6.2 hours every day, or 31 hours a week – almost a whole person, in productive time lost.
I’m an efficiency expert. Time, which is money, is a precious commodity that we can’t afford to waste.
Think about the way our offices are set up. In an open floor plan, with low cubicles, it’s easy for someone to walk by and ask, ‘Got a minute?’ right when you’re about to finish writing up a big project. And you both know that that minute is never just a minute.
The flow is constant. All day, people can drop by and talk about a variety of unnecessary things – ‘What do you think of the opera? Did you see the Grammies?’ Time Bandits are our friends, our bosses, our colleagues. And we are our own worst Time Bandits because of the Internet. It’s just about destroyed our ability to concentrate. Social network marketing has nailed us with everything to break our concentration.
Q: So what can workers do to better protect against interruptions?
Brown: Time Locks. Mutual Time Lock agreements between management and the workforce. Where everyone is given dedicated quiet time to concentrate, and the Time Bandits have to agree in writing not to interrupt during those periods.
Once we trained people how to ask for Time Locks, how to set them up, and how to honor them, we found not only qualitative improvements in workers, but quantitatively, one of our clients said that, if they were conservative, they estimated personal productivity shot up 40 to 60 percent, maybe more. To the point where they started boasting about time surplus, asking, what do we do with this time that we’ve never had before?
As William James said: “Concentration; it implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others, and is a condition which has a real opposite in the confused, dazed and scatterbrained state.”
Q: What about you? Do you use Time Locks?
Brown: I’ve actually declared war against interruptions. My partner is a psychiatrist. I love him. We have a mutual time lock, when we’ve agreed not to interrupt one another, so we can concentrate. But if he calls and says, ‘I have an emergency,’ I will break that agreement in an instant. In other words, never say no to a Time Bandit. You could lose your friends, lose your job, you could certainly lose camaraderie with colleagues.
Q: So if you can’t just say no, how do you set up Time Locks? What would you suggest readers do?
Brown: You need to talk to your Time Bandit and ask if they suffer from interruption. Every Time Bandit has a Time Bandit. So you first start from a position of empathy.
If you take a moment, and ask a Time Bandit, ‘Can you take a minute to discuss something that affects business welfare and personal life as well? Because I never seem to have enough time to do things I have to do. I always feel on the verge of missing deadlines. Let’s discuss how we could help each other create more quiet time.’
You could say to your boss, ‘I feel when I’m interrupted, I can’t complete the task with all the quality and efficiency I’d like to, that I’m going to disappoint you or let you down. But I want to share with you, if there were fewer interruptions, I think I could achieve more productivity.’
That begins a dialogue that could and should end up with a mutual Time Lock agreement, say for two hours every day at a predetermined time that you know you can count on uninterrupted periods of time to do your most important work.
We were called into Merrill Lynch to work with the night shift. Leaders thought they were unproductive and needed to learn to work more efficiently. We observed both the day and night shifts. The night shift was working quietly and efficiently. It turns out, the day shift wasn’t finishing its work. They looked busy and like they were working hard, but they were working in chaos – there were overlapping conversations, countless interruptions. So we worked with the managers and the workers to negotiate mutual Time Lock agreements. And everyone’s productivity improved.
We tell skeptics, if you’re not sure time locks will work, run a pilot.
Then there’s our own mental hygiene to attend to, to prevent mental leakage.
Q: Mental hygiene? Mental leakage?
Brown: Sometimes we are our own most stubborn and uncooperative Time Bandits. Checking email, or interrupting ourselves with other distractions. When we seek to concentrate for more than 20 to 30 minutes at a time, somehow we find that’s a huge challenge.
But there are mental hygiene techniques you can learn, psychological martial arts, if you will, to get psychological control of your urge to interrupt yourself. Being mindful is one. Focusing on the neutral, or the positive, instead of the negative is another. Staying away from “energy vampires” who complain all the time and drain your energy.
When it comes to time, work on the harder work when your energy is at its peak, whenever that is for you, and in your energy “valley,” learn to chunk your time, to “batch” easy work for greatest efficiency.
Strive to allocate 80 percent of your time to 20 percent of tasks that deliver greatest return on effort. Don’t just work smart, work smart on the right things.
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