What has interrupted you already today and what was the impact on your productivity? How long did it take you to disengage from your old task, deal with the issue, get back up to speed with the new one? (Reading this blog doesn’t count as a distraction, of course).
As we become part of ever more interlinked networks of communication, the first step is managing our own attention as we navigate our daily digital world. A typical hour in working in a complex organization in multiple teams might look something like:
A study into the ‘nature of fragmented work’ found that:
- Typically people take 25 minutes after being distracted before going back to their original topic.
- Many people, after an interruption, don’t go back to the topic straightaway. It’s typical to work on 2.26 other working spheres before resuming the original task.
- The larger the interruption, the more intrusive it is, or the more intervening tasks you complete, the harder it is to get back to where you were in the previous task.
- Often once we are distracted we will do a number of unrelated things such as check our emails, grab a coffee, surf the internet, or talk to a friend.
- Only 55% of people resume the same work immediately after an interruption.
- After interruptions, 40% of the time people cannot easily recall the previous task they were doing. They lose track and take time to rebuild the state of mind and the point in the work as they resume.
To mitigate some of these effects, we have to overcome what scholars call our natural tendency to be ‘switchy’ and to swap to easier work. Indeed various studies have found that we interrupt ourselves as often as we are interrupted or forced to switch tasks/ teams by others.
Techniques that have been found to help overcome these tendencies include:
- ‘Time-boxing’: organize your diary into longer discrete chunks of work for different teams
- Consciously avoid switching mid task or to easier work
- Tackling the more challenging work when your energy is highest (often the start of the day) – rather than always starting by dealing with emails and so getting sucked into fire-fighting
- Only check emails twice a day, or turn off the email alert. You will probably have heard this before – but have you tried it?
- When interrupted take a moment to place a bookmark or cursor at the point at which you were in a document, make a short note of what you were working on or summarise it swiftly in your own mind before dealing with the interruption
- Seeing success: visualize rebuilding your attention. Mentally place all the other things you’re working on into an imaginary filing system. Put it all to one side, clear your mental desk and then visualize yourself opening only the file you are going to work on. This will help clear your mind and focus on what needs to be done.
Looking to the future, some technology companies are now starting to look at how we put a value on attention, either by pricing emails or charging a fee for opening an email communication. Other suppliers are attempting to help us filter and adapt our priorities through intelligent systems that can tell how we’re concentrating and that can store our preferences on how we want to be interrupted, or not.
To some extent it’s about finding what works best for you and sticking to that – some people work best if they can concentrate on one task for long periods of time, whilst others are more energized by slightly more frequent switching of tasks (again up to a point).
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