Did you know that the average manager gets interrupted approximately once every eight minutes? That’s about seven interruptions each hour. What’s worse, after every interruption, it takes an average of 25 minutes to fully regain cognitive focus. No wonder at the end of an eight-hour day, you still feel like you haven’t accomplished anything.
Constant emails and phone calls and coworkers dropping by to ask “just a quick question” can eat up the majority of your working time, leaving your real work untouched at the end of the day. Business performance expert Shawn Casemore says the key to improving our productivity is managing interruptions. Here’s how.
“We’ve been trained [to think] that multitasking is the way to go. We’re told not to sit there and work on this one thing,” says Casemore. While we think that by multitasking–answering emails, keeping the door open for colleagues to pop in when they feel like it, picking up the phone every time it rings–that we’re being super productive, but research shows that when we try to do multiple things at once, we are actually not being productive at all.
A University of London study found people who tried multitasking during a cognitive task saw their IQ drop the same amount as if they had stayed up all night or smoked marijuana.
Before you even open your email at the start of the day, jot down your core task for the day. If your core task isn’t answering emails, turn off your email alerts. Do what you need to do in order to allow yourself to focus on that core task.
Once you know what your core tasks are for the day, schedule time to work on them. “You need to be protective of your calendar,” says Casemore. But, he adds, in order to be truly effective at scheduling work time, it isn’t enough to simply shut off instant messages or shut the door and place a “busy” sign on it.
You also need to communicate what your priorities are with others around you. Tell them what you’re working on and when, and then set times that you will be available to answer emails and be available for questions or other projects.
Meetings are one of the most invasive interruptions. Casemore says meetings are often a waste of time for at least half of the people in the room. “Many times, half the people in the room don’t add any value and don’t need to be there,” he says.
To ensure that your presence in a meeting isn’t a waste of your time, ask the meeting organizer for an agenda to determine if you’re really needed there. Meeting organizers can do their part to help invitees avoid wasting their time in the wrong meetings by communicating the relevance.
“Simply by sending out information in advance of the meeting, you can help people determine whether they really need to be there,” says Casemore. After reviewing the meeting agenda, you may determine that you need to be present for only 10 minutes, rather than the entire hour. This frees up a lot of time so you can return to your core focus for the day.
The best way to gain time back and avoid being interrupted by things that aren’t critical to you completing your core tasks is to delegate unnecessary work. But many managers mistakenly think delegating will lead to even more interruptions, with staff asking how to perform the task and double-checking that they’ve done it correctly.
Casemore says managers need to do a better job at educating staff how to do tasks, and thinking about the long-term investment of time. “If it takes 10 minutes once a week to do something, if you delegate it, it may take you a half hour to train someone else how to do it, but in three weeks, you start to realize a return on your investment,” he says.