I mentioned the other day that I am looking for a new job in project management. I sat down with an executive management team the other day for an interview and as we talked, most of the individuals who were participating in the discussion identified that one of the biggest challenges they face in the workplace is avoiding interruptions that seem to kill their productivity and ability to focus on the tasks they need to get done. I am pretty sure this is a universal challenge for everyone, one that will not go away.
As a project manager I find that my personal bandwidth, or the amount of work I am capable of completing in a day, can be diminished significantly if I allow interruptions to derail my focus. My personality doesn’t help me out in this case either — my attention is easily shifted from one task to another. I actually have to work at being mentally focused on one thing for a prolonged period of time. Frankly I consider this a strength and having learned to maintain my focus allows me to shift from multitasking to having a laser like focus.
But there are some times when interruptions are just not welcomed. In our society today we are too used to being 100% accessible 100% of the time. I am guilty of having a progression to get in touch with my friends and project teams during the work day — first I try their office line, then their cell phone, then I text them, email them, and then I may even call their spouse to see if I can reach them there. Don’t worry, I don’t do that too often.
Being on their receiving end of this can really kill your ability to accomplish those tasks that you need to. About a year ago, Govloop.com completed a survey of project managers who work for government agencies at all levels related to the top five challenges they face. Of course, the number one challenge was time constraints, both within the project and the allocation of time during their work day. I think the challenge of using your time most effectively is universal and something we all face. As we continue to increase our connections via new technologies, this problem will only get worse. It is something you need to actively manage.
I have found that when I get sidetracked to answer and email or text, it takes me about ten minutes to ramp back up my productivity. If I allow myself to answer two emails an hour, then I have lost twenty minutes of productivity. I really should just spend that time on Facebook looking at pictures of kittens instead. The outcome would be the same. So I had to be proactive about my time management and go beyond just putting together a schedule and a task list for each work day. I had to be aggressive managing those things that were distractions to me so I could be more productive and get stuff done. After all, isn’t that what my clients were paying me for?
Here is a quick process to try over the next week to help you make a change.
- Track and measure interruptions. I actually tried this for a week. I tracked them old school style, pencil and paper. I formatted a quick spreadsheet where I classified the distraction — like phone call, voice-mail, email, text, and social media — and tracked the start time and recorded the time where I got back to the task I was focused on. At the end of the week I added up all the time I lost to interruptions and found that I was losing about 12 hours a week to downtime. It took work to track the required metrics, but the information it provided me with was invaluable.
- Identify the biggest offenders and create a plan. For me the biggest interruptions were email, voice-mail, texts, and social media in that order. So I turned off my email notification in Outlook and scheduled an hour a day where I would respond to email. I didn’t put that hour at the start of the day either. I changed my work voice-mail greeting to include a time of the day where I would respond to voice-mail. I then had to plan to not respond immediately to texts and not worry about social media messages from friends and colleagues. I found that including time to deal with email and voice-mail every day helped me not stress about checking each as soon as they arrive.
- Make the change. This is the hardest step of all. You need to train your brain to not look at your phone every time it rings or vibrates. You need to develop the understanding that people are not going to pass out and your business will not go under if you wait an hour to return a call. You need to focus on the task at hand, complete it, and then pay attention to priorities that are thrust on you from external sources.
- Monitor your progress. I completed the same measurement and tracking about six weeks after I started this process and noticed a significant reduction in the amount of time I spent focusing on some of the interruptions I defined. I noticed my system was not perfect, but it was making more productive. And being more productive helped me maximize my time and effort while I was at work. It also helped me leave the laptop at the office more often.
This is a very simple system, but I think its strength is in its simplicity. You don’t need a complex system to help shift your thinking and help you focus on what is important until it is complete. As a project manager, one of the biggest challenges I face is trying to stuff everything I have to get done so I can leave work at the office and focus on my family when I am home. Focus your mind and your efforts on what is important and you will find your productivity improve.