The subtle – and not subtle – actions that ruin your productivity

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Even when you know multi-tasking doesn’t work — we do it anyway. We can’t seem to help it. There are ways that we sabotage ourselves, though. We allow out software programs to default ways to interrupt us. Our physical location supports being interrupted. We don’t take a hard enough look at these situations to help make them better.

We need to make our productivity better by default.

Multi-tasking is not really possible anyway. The way our brain works is that we focus on one task, then quickly switch to another, then switch back to what we were doing. We are working on a report, the meeting notice for the meeting comes up 15-minutes before the meeting, we see that notice – breaking what we were working on — and then go back to what we were working on.

That little thing is “multi-tasking” but what really happens is we focus on one thing, switch focus to the invite popping up, then switch back to what we were originally working on.

That simple move costs us dearly in terms of our ability to perform. As Cynthia Kubu, PhD, and Andre Machado, MD note:

Repeatedly switching back and forth from project to project, like a hummingbird darting from flower to flower and then back to the original flower, can impair our ability to function at our finest.

Having those interruptions — or seriously trying to do two things at once — ends up being ineffective:

…a respected Stanford University study actually showed that those who consider themselves to be great multitaskers made more mistakes, remembered fewer details and actually took longer to complete tasks than those who did not consider themselves to be frequent multitaskers.

Okay, so multi-tasking is bad. Perhaps we can all agree that, at a minimum, trying to multi-task is not optimum.

The interesting thing is that even if we agree that we shouldn’t be multi-tasking, we end up sabotaging ourselves simply in the way we’ve set up our environment to work. Let’s take a look:

Kill your notifications

Every app does one of two things to interrupt your life: set default notifications or ask to push notifications to you.

Microsoft Outlook — email

Outlook has a default to notify you every single time you get a new email. Every single one. In one of my larger companies I worked for, millions of emails are received every month. The default setting means employees will be interrupted millions of times a month.

Even being inside Mail for Outlook means that as you are writing emails, a new email pops into your inbox and you quickly glance at it to see what the subject line is — and it breaks what you are trying to finish right now.

The way to solve this is to go into the settings and change the default notification to none. Don’t let that message slide in from the lower corner — it will interrupt you dozens of times a day.

And when you are writing an email, minimize the email window while you are writing your email so you don’t see the email coming into your inbox, breaking your concentration.

Pro benefit: turning off those notifications means you won’t have your email notification interrupt your presentation. Based on some emails flying around, that could render a big benefit…

Microsoft Outlook — meetings

Outlook defaults to a notification of 15-minutes before your next meeting. Somewhere on your screen – even behind some open Windows — that meeting notice pops up.

What do you normally do with it? Most used options:

  • You leave the notification open. This distracts you even more because now you look at the notification often to see how much time is left before the meeting. Every time you look at it, it breaks your concentration.
  • Or, you look down at the notification and see the Snooze button and you click that with the reminder of 5-minutes before the meeting. That results in giving you two notifications before the meeting, disrupting your 15-minutes twice.

I solve this two ways. First, I go into the Calendar settings and set MY default notification for meetings to five-minutes before the meeting. No one does this; I just do it to run counter to the default interruption.

Second, when I invariably get the default 15-minute meeting notice from everyone else, I, yes, go to the snooze button — but I pick zero minutes before the meeting and snooze the notice until the meeting starts.

There is a small decision on five minutes versus zero minutes: five minutes if I need to walk to a faraway conference room. Otherwise, since the vast majority of my meetings are calls, I set it to zero minutes before the start.

Skype Teams Slack etc.

These types of applications just hit you after the other person hits “enter” on the message. It’s an electronic “walk up to your cube and start talking” moment. It breaks whatever you’re doing.

Not only that, but, again, if you are presenting to an audience in a meeting, everyone gets to see whatever message whoever is sending to you. (To be fair, Skype for Business puts you into Do Not Disturb mode while you are presenting to prevent this very thing). Think about some of the IM’s you receive and figure out how much you’d like others to see those messages. After all, they just randomly show up based on what hundreds of your coworkers are doing at the time that might involve you providing an answer.

Just because it is an Instant Message doesn’t mean you need to do an Instant Answer. Turn the notifications off. They will be there when you are ready to see them. Just because someone else is looking for an instant answer (and I am very guilty of doing this as well, so no awesomeness here…) doesn’t mean you need to break your productivity and provide them with an Instant Answer.

That special case: I chat with my wife — not on corporate assets — as many of us do in order to handle home stuff. Almost all of us with family do so. But here’s the deal: even if the interruption is from family, it’s still an interruption. Think of yourself being in the middle of trying to reconcile a spreadsheet and you start getting IM’s from your significant other. Just like I am now trying to write this article! It’s an interruption and it breaks your train of thought.

If what you are doing requires concentration, put yourself in Do Not Disturb mode and let whoever know beforehand you’re doing it. Then notify them when you’re off Do Not Disturb mode.

Pro Tip: Take 30-minutes right now and go through all of your notification settings. The ones at work. The ones you use for your personal devices. The default position should be OFF. Do not allow some mindless application to decide for you that you should have interruptions that have a Sound, a Banner, and a persistent banner even in lock mode.

Remember, you’re supposed to be the one in charge of how you want notifications and when you’ll allow an application to interrupt you. Don’t give that right away.

Your work environment

Unfortunately, almost all of us work in an open cubicle type of environment. And while management thinks that the open environment offers up great collaboration benefits, actual studies show open environments are terrible for getting things done.

…review of more than 100 studies on open offices found that the layout consistently led to lower rates of concentration and focus, and a third paper, which analyzed more than 50 surveys on open offices, found consistent complaints about noise and interruptions

Another survey of 38,000 knowledge workers “found that one of the biggest losses of productive time during the day stemmed from interruptions by colleagues.”

Ah, yes, the interruptions from our colleagues.

I really like my coworkers. I just don’t like them interrupting me when I’m trying to get stuff done. Which, to be fair, is almost all the time. I don’t like working 50-hours a week or more, so I try really hard to get stuff done during normal working hours. Because I do that, I like to think I’m a lot more productive than most. (I also totally fail to get stuff done all the time, but I keep trying).

After all, when you walk into work and the first thing you do is chat about what happened yesterday for 45-minutes with your coworkers – at least for me – you’re ruining my time to get caught up on the overnight email from other continents and prep time for my first meetings.

Even Outlook is suggesting that you block some time on your calendar for “focus time” – time to get things done. But putting it on your calendar may prevent meeting invites (and even then, not all the time), but it doesn’t prevent the vast assortment of interruptions from notifications and people doing drive-by’s and interrupting your work. And the interruptions add up:

A recent study conducted at the University of California, Irvine indicated that most people take 23 minutes and 15 seconds to recover from an interruption. That’s actually a pretty long time, and it can really add up over the course of a day.

Even with the ubiquitous headphones on signaling you’re working on something, people will interrupt you. They may apologize for interrupting you, but interrupt you nonetheless.

There is only one answer: to get things done, you can’t really do it in your cubicle. You have to go somewhere else. (queue: irony for having a dedicated space for work)

I’ve gone to common areas; it helps, but doesn’t work. I’ve gone to hotel-type cubes out of my area and that doesn’t help. I’ve even gone to hotel-type cubes in a different building and I still get interrupted.

Again, I like my colleagues, but the interruptions are just killer to getting things done.

The only answer

One can’t be totally isolated all the time and expect to be a good coworker. There is some level at which you need to be in your cube, available to your coworkers, working on things where it would be okay to pay the interruption price.

But if you’re going to work on something that takes concentration — my classic example in my own job is reconciling financials with project plans — it’s best if you set yourself up for no interruptions so you can get the task done.

It means: putting yourself into a Do Not Disturb mode on all your apps or devices and literally going somewhere where you won’t be interrupted. Personally, I work from home on those days where I have a lot of concentrated work to do. A coffee shop might also work — you have the white noise going on, of course, but if you are in a place where people don’t know you, it can be effective.

In the end, I just want to get work done during the business day and leave it there. It’s surprisingly difficult to set those boundaries.

What have you done to help minimize interruptions? Let me know in the comments.

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