Monday Musings on Work

Sep 26 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

Fast Company posted a piece dealing with workplace distractions today. Their sources estimate that workplace distractions, those that take us off-task, cost our economy over $10,000 per worker per year.

What's a loyal employee to do? The article includes 3 suggestions:

  • Turn off alerts. Email and instant message alerts are one of the biggest causes of interruptions. One study found that 71% of people answer IM alerts within 2 seconds, and 41% of people respond to email alerts within 15 seconds. Turning these off will do wonders for productivity.
  • Off-site, out of mind. If you have work that requires deep thought or creativity, like writing or coming up with new ideas, find a quiet place outside the office, like a library or study, where there are fewer distractions.
  • Be "alone in the crowd." Follow Petrarch’s 650-year-old advice and find a way to shut out the world in crowded spaces. For example, work in a café with a pair of headphones. Many people find it easy to shut out distractions when they are not targeted at them.

It's laminated; you can see my reflection!

Anyone who hasn't turned off email alerts should stop reading right now and do that on the computer and smart phone and iPad and anything else with updates. Really- what are you waiting for?  My phone still alerts me to texts because these can be more urgent than email. In my world, the urgency scale goes from snail mail (most official but least urgent) to email to text to phone call.

The piece missed one of my favorite techniques, the closed door. This one won't work if you live in a cubicle farm, but closing the door sends a message that you are, ins some  way, unavailable. I have signs for my door letting people know if I am out, on a conference call, or in with the door closed. The latter lets people with truly urgent stuff know that they can knock.

The article has advice for organizations as well:

  • Create email policies. Limit the number of email recipients for a given message. Limit the length of an email thread, and encourage people to pick up the phone instead of sending endless emails. Discourage the use of email’s "cc" capability.
  • Create meeting policies. Not all meetings need to be an hour or a half hour. Shorten meetings and make sure computers are closed (unless needed for note taking), phones are off, and insist that texting is strictly verboten.
  • Reduce context switching. Workers change windows 37 times an hour, on average, according to the New York Times. We use too many applications to get work done. We spend the day cutting information from one window into another; all this toggling is sapping us of our ability to work. New collaboration tools are actually making things worse. Forrester Research found that 61% of organizations have invested in 5 or more collaboration tools, but that most of them are not being used effectively. At one of my recent seminars, one participant went as far as to say, "If I have to use one more productivity tool, I won’t get ANY work done." The key is to make what you have already work better by integrating them so typical workflows like document and knowledge sharing are contained in a work context

I can't argue with most of these suggestions, although encouraging phone use can have the opposite effect. I hate to sit through a ringing phone, and using it more could increase interruptions. The phone should be used for stuff that requires an answer soon (like many patient care questions) or those where lack of a paper trail is a good thing. If it can wait 24 hours, use email.

Any other ideas out there for staying on task?

6 responses so far

  • Art says:

    E-mail has alerts? You mean like some sort of sound, perhaps a pop-up, when a new e-mail arrives? Interesting. I think I've heard of such a thing but never used one and I'm not quite sure how I would turn such a thing, assuming I had the option, on.

    I usually turn on my e-mail program, Thunderbird, every three or four days, maybe a week, download the pile, and deal with it. I used to do it once a month. 90% of it is trash I highlight and delete without reading. Huge bloody swaths of uselessness. Mostly wienie pills, offers for overpriced crap I don't want, political rants from people I detest, and damn near everyone is begging for money. Click - gone.

    I answer the one, sometimes two, e-mails that deserve an answer and I turn off Thunderbird, which empties the trash.

    Funny thing is that as I've gotten harder to reach those who do reach me seem to appreciate my efforts. And having an alert pop up every ten seconds sounds like an awful waste of time. I'm not going to stand-for-the-queen every time some two-bit hawker decides I need to hear about his snake oil or some charlatan wants to tell me the latest fever dream outrage rumored to have been committed by Obama.

    • Pascale says:

      Unfortunately, many corporate email programs have alerts of some sort "on" in their default mode. From personal experience, I know both Blackberry and iPhone come with email alerts on. After the first two bleeps anyone with half a brain starts digging through their settings to make those go away.

      My rule of thumb is that emails should be something that can wait at least a day. If I expect an answer sooner than that, I text or phone. I check my emails in the morning, sometime around lunch, and before I go home. I check my calendar that often, so I see them at the same time. Yes, my calendar can change that frequently.

      And the next person who calls to see if I got their email will die...

  • Their sources estimate that workplace distractions, those that take us off-task, cost our economy over $10,000 per worker per year.

    These estimates of "lost workplace productivity"--such as the handwringing every year during March Madness about "billions of dollars of lost productivity due to bracket pools"--are a complete lie. This is because they assume that every minute of time that a worker dickes around on the ESPN Web site subtracts an entire minute of time from the total amount of time spent working during a day *and* that work output over the course of a day (or week or whatever) is a linear function of time spent working during that interval.

    With regard to the first assumption, it is obviously the case that different distractions can also displace one another, and not just displace work. With regard to the second assumption, the marginal output from a given unit of time spent working decreases as the amount of time spent working increases (once you reach some minimum threshold).

    The result is that these estimates of lost productivity are always grossly overblown.

    • Pascale says:

      Regardless of the level of lost productivity, constant interruptions can take us off track.
      Since most of what I do at a desk, when email or other distractions most likely occur, does not result in direct income to my employer, it is unclear that checking my twitter feed is in anyway detrimental to my productivity.

  • I'm late to a good discussion, but here's my tip to ease transitions between tasks and reduce impetus to "worry ahead" about later tasks.

    Write down in the morning what key activities you want to do PLUS (a) what resources it will take to accomplish each of those tasks and (b) a general sketch of whatever your output should be, particularly if it is a writing activity. The idea is to create a to-do list, but extend it by completing much of the "heavy thinking" before any of the day's distractions work their way into your office.

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