Work Smart: Avoid Office Distractions With Time Blocking

Work Smart

The most important decision you'll make today is about what to pay attention to and what to ignore.

In an interruption-driven culture, it's too easy to let everyone else decide where your attention goes and how to spend your next 10 minutes. If you jump every time your phone rings, a new email arrives, your Blackberry buzzes, or someone stops by your desk, you're undermining your most important work and costing your company money. A recent study shows that unnecessary interruptions costs the U.S. economy $650 billion dollars in lost productivity per year.

Being available to your boss and co-workers is part of your job. But the most creative and important work you do requires total focus and attention for an extended period of time. Your brain needs at least 15 minutes of uninterrupted time to dive in, concentrate on one thing, and get into the zone where you're truly focused and doing your best work. Time blocking is a technique that sets the stage for that to happen.

When you've got a project that requires deep thinking, block out hour-long "meetings" with yourself to devote your full attention to it. During your time block, forward the phone to voicemail, shut down Microsoft Outlook, silence your Blackberry, and if you have to, leave your desk with the materials you need and focus solely on the task at hand. Sound crazy? Even an employee low on the totem pole can do it.

I used to work as a software programmer at a busy office that had an open seating layout. There were no cubicles—sales people sat elbow to elbow next to graphic designers who sat next to engineers, and people constantly interrupted each other. It got so bad that when I was on deadline, I'd book hour-long meetings in a conference room where I was the only attendee. I'd put the meeting in my calendar a day or two ahead of time so that I showed up as "busy" in Outlook. When the time came, I'd steal off to the conference room with my laptop to work uninterrupted. When I confessed to another programmer that I was holding fake meetings with myself just to get work done, he asked if he could join me—under the condition that we would not distract one another. I got the most work done in the shortest amount of time during those blocks.

Time blocking works best when you've got a discrete, single task or project that involves deep engagement, like research, number crunching, brainstorming, or writing. Set a definite start and end time when you don't have other meetings to attend. Commit to coming out of a single time block with a specific task accomplished. If the Internet is too tempting a distraction, download the files you need to get the job done before you start, and turn off your laptop's Internet connection during your block.

When you work in an office where interruptions are the rule and not the exception, use time blocking to reclaim hours you'd otherwise spend dealing with distractions.

Gina Trapani is the author of Upgrade Your Life and founding editor of Lifehacker.com. Work Smart appears every week on FastCompany.com.

Last week: Three Ways to Use Google Wave in Your Business

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21 Comments

  • Scott Forgey

    Great story. Interruptions are the death of thinking. We have to be pro-active in training our environment.

  • Andrew Moore

    For those interested in such things, Jon Steel wrote about making head space away from distractions in his very good book "Perfect Pitch", chapter-5 titled "Crushing the BlackBerry".

    Andrew Moore
    http://tvsheffield.org

  • Brendt Waters

    "Even an employee low on the totem pole can do it."

    Apparently, Mr Trapani has never heard of a little company called IBM. If I'm not on the corporate IM system all day, every day, available to the entire company, I get chastised by management. (And my manager is very reasonable - this is apparently a company-wide policy.)

    Fortunately, they're laying me off next week (after 20+ years).

  • Elizabeth Whittington

    One of the best pieces of advice I've received is to understand that checking and answering e-mail is not part of your job. Use it to get your job done, but don't think you're accomplishing your work if that's all your doing all day.

  • James Penman

    I just read this article and immediately acted on the wisdom. My partners and I are very good at managing distractions and staying focused generally speaking. This evening, however, I was having a terrible time getting one of my pressing obligations done and, having just read the article, I turned off my wireless, picked up all the junk I'd need, and carted everything off to another room where I was magically able to focus anew. Hooray!

    James Penman | Owner
    Johnny Lightning Strikes Again
    Web Design. Graphic Design. Branding.

  • jeen weiver

    I sometimes do get distracted...I will begin something and starts doing it. But before long something else on internet or at home(I work from home online) catches my eye and I spend a lot of time there..Time simply wasted away!

    These tips are practical and I will start applying them... lets see where it leads?
    Rrod

  • Maura Thomas

    I agree it's so important to take control of your time. I find three "rules" help make time-blocking the most productive:
    1. Be judicious with the amount of appointments you make with yourself, because YOU are the first person you will break an appointment with. If your own name is showing up on your calendar too often, you'll start to just ignore those appointments.
    2. Don't try to time-block too far in advance, because things change, and it's too difficult to predict what your week will look like a month from now. The exceptions are to perhaps reserve some time a day or two before a huge deadline, or after being out of the office for some period of time.
    3. Don't try to block your time in chunks that are too large. If you start to get hungry, thirsty, need a restroom break, a cup of coffee, etc., it will become too distracting to work, anyway. I find about 1-1/2 to 2 hours at a time seems just about perfect. I too wrote a post about this, which you can find here: http://budurl.com/procrast

    Thanks for a great post!

  • Christine Maingard

    Gina - So true. We are far more efficient when we use 'time blocking'. We should all discipline ourselves to do this and organisations should foster such practice. Time blocking is also good for our intelligence. A 2005 study conducted by the University of London's Institute of Psychiatry found that distractions at work can bring about, on average, an IQ reduction that is twice as high as the IQ reduction experienced by people who regularly smoke marijuana. Also, when we let ourselves be constantly interrupted in our work activities we can suffer similar psychological effects as when we are seriously sleep deprived.

    Dr Christine Maingard
    Author of "Think Less, Be More"
    http://www.thinklessbemore.com

  • Christine Messier

    Great ideas, Gina! I use time blocking for myself and to help my clients with their writing. The creative process can be difficult if you simply wait to be inspired and don't create the environment to be productive. I have written productivity tools on my blog for both Time Stamping (assigning estimated durations for pieces of a project) and Color Blocking (a technique to makes a visual representation of your day and week to easily see where adjustments can be made)and the results have been wonderful. Cheers to championing a winning combination of productivity and creativity! - Christine www.YourVoiceInc.com

  • Dan Rockwell

    Gina,

    Thanks for your article. It's obvious you've thought through important issues.

    I wonder how this ties to the importance of getting out of your chair and moving around. I recently read an article that said "your chair is killing you." They recommended getting up every 30 minutes.

    What's your take on that.

    Regards,

    Leadership Freak
    Dan Rockwell
    Recent Blog: 4 ways to spot backstabbers before its too late
    http://leadershipfreak.wordpre...

  • grace jones

    Another highly distractive work environment? The home, especially if you don't have a home office, like many professional internet-based businesses, e.g., bloggers. Internet cafes can be less distracting than the living room...

  • Gregory Ferenstein

    @Cliff how often do you find yourself checking email? Is that blocked as well?

    --
    @ferenstein

  • Cliff Allen

    I use both "time blocking" and a "three a day" task list to prioritize my time each day. I do certain "high value" activities before noon, and another set of activities in the afternoon.

    In addition, I flag three tasks each day on my big 'ol to do list (actually a mind map document) that I really need to get done.

    Interruptions occur throughout the day, but these two techniques are my compass that pull me back on course.

  • Rob Brennan

    Absolutely. One of the most important things we can do is take charge (and ownership) of our talents and abilities. While this does involves a high level of flexibility, it also means that we cannot be afraid to push back when things begin to become too overwhelming. My own philosophy is that it is far better to plan ahead - anticipating distractions - and truly set aside time where the other stuff simply has to simmer a bit. My thinking? If it's not a show stopping event, people can deal with having to come back later. And if not? Screw 'em - they'll have to learn to deal with coming back later =)