Getting A Grip on Productivity – Who controls the interruptions?

Copyright 2006

Have you ever come into work bright and sharp, the work at your desk beckons invitingly, you can’t wait to get started, and then the day turns to muck? One thing after another claims your attention; the rest of the world is clearly in conspiracy against your productivity, and at the end of the day you collapse into an untidy heap of exhausted humanity. Yes? Try these strategies.

Turn off or divert the phone. If you must have the phone answered by a real person, divert it to a pager service or another colleague while you attend to important high-concentration tasks. Schedule appointments with yourself for the big tasks There’s something about a written appointment – it gives you more power to say ‘No, I’m sorry, I can’t stop.’ Either shut the door (if you’ve got one) or make yourself unavailable in some obvious way An hour (at least) of uninterrupted time every day would transform the lives and job satisfaction of most people.

E-mail. Turn off your message notifier. Schedule two or three daily non-prime-time slots for e-mail. A delay of a few hours doesn’t matter – email shouldn’t be used for time-sensitive matters. If we go there first in the day we run the serious danger of being swallowed up by the addictive world of the Internet. Suddenly the day has vanished and it seems that all we’ve done is major in minor things.

Skim. If you’ve been out of your office for any time, skim your waiting mail quickly for peace-of-mind but then get down to the most important work. Unless it really is the most important thing, don’t let the new item steal your attention until it’s the ‘right’ time. If you’ve got an assistant or a PA, ask them to sort incoming material into priority piles so your ‘quick skim’ of familiarisation is even quicker. As with any technique, skimming has both benefit and danger. Benefit – you get to your ‘real’ work with confidence, knowing exactly what lurks and when you need to do it. Downside – if you always skim and rarely or belatedly come back to complete you’ll soon have a Leaning Tower of ‘I’ll get round to it later’ piles all over the desk. Overwhelm becomes the dominant sensation!

Chunk types of activity as well as specific tasks. Chunking focuses the mind. Allocate a piece of time to one task or activity only. For me, now it’s writing, soon it will be e-mails, then phone calls. Many people dart like swallows from one activity to another and then wonder why nothing ever seems to get completed.

Keep focus. When interruptions come in, decide whether the interruption is of higher importance than what you’re working on. If not, put it on your daily list or ‘today’ action pile and keep going with the present activity.

A clear desk. The space in which you work (for many that’s around your computer) is your potential interruption zone. Keep it clear of distractions. Items awaiting attention should be slightly or completely behind you, out of eye range. Otherwise, while you work the stacks of ‘stuff’ nearby wave invisible hands, shouting almost audibly ‘Pick me, pick me!’ This is a huge and invisible energy drain. The interruptions never go away, but we can control them.