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Not "Just a Minute" of Your Time

When someone asks for a minute of your time, how much of your time are they getting?

Many tasks that busy people face involve concentration and focus. If someone interrupts you for a minute, they break that concentration. To pick up where you left off with that task requires you to re-establish that concentration. That can take more than just a minute.

Consider the modern carpenter with power tools working on a project. The actual cutting takes a very small fraction of the time. The majority of the task involves setting up strategies, building jigs and spacers, and measuring. If the phone rings between cutting the eleventh and twelfth pieces, the carpenter can 1) finish running the piece, 2) hit the power switch, 3) remove the safety glasses and 4) pick up the phone in a matter of seconds.

If, on the other hand, the phone rings while the carpenter is struggling to design a complicated three-dimensional structure, the visible signs of setback will be much smaller. In fact, though, it's possible to lose a great deal more time, since all the concentration that was about to lead to a solution may be lost. Instead of hitting the power switch and removing the goggles, the carpenter will likely lose the train of thought.

What's more, if the phone rings at any given moment it's more likely to interrupt the planning than the doing, since the carpenter spends more time planning and setting up than actually cutting! The more concentration our work requires, the worse an interruption is.

Tom DeMarco and Tim Lister's wonderful book on software engineering sociology, "Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams" reports on a study of software engineering performance, where software professionals in various organizations were asked to produce an identical, well-defined product. He shows a table comparing the work conditions of the best 25% of performers versus the worst 25%. Very significant differences were found on interruptibility:

   best quartile  worst quartile
 Is it acceptably quiet?  57 % yes  29 % yes
 Is it acceptably private?  62 % yes  19 % yes
 Can you silence your phone?  52 % yes  10 % yes
 Can you divert your calls?  76 % yes  19 % yes
 Do people often interrupt you needlessly?  38 % yes  76 % yes

[Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams, copyright 1987, Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister, Dorset House Publishing]

It's generally accepted that good professional programmers are 10 times as effective as merely acceptable ones, so these results aren't just about fine tuning.

Now, while there are aspects of programming that make this sort of measurement feasible, many other tasks of modern life require concentration. This means that the cost of a 60 second interruption is not 60 seconds. The cost is however much time it takes you to re-establish the level of concentration you had before the interruption!

If you have a task that requires a half hour of concentration to get started and an hour to complete, you can easily accomplish it in an hour and a half. But if the phone rings or someone drops by your office a dozen or so times in a day, you will likely *never* complete the task!

If you face tasks that require concentration, the solution is simple enough - make sure that you can do the task in a time and place where interruptions are minimized!

Of course, a lot of modern life is about interacting with others. Being constantly unreceptive to casual interaction will also prevent you from being effective. The right level of compromise is a matter of balancing your own personal needs. Both at work and at home, then, what most people need is a way of signalling when they are interruptible and when they are not. If you have a private space a door is the natural cue - leave it open when you are feeling sociable and close it when you are concentrating!

The same applies at home. Even if you have children, you should find some way to share the child supervision tasks so that each adult has some time for their own pursuits.

Some people's work is primarily about interruptions, so they can't really close their door at all. We have worked with a few school nurses recently. This is a job where the interruption time is the most important of all, and other tasks (education programs, vaccinations, distribution of medications) are secondary to the sudden illness or injury that a child may present. Even so, the school nurse can discourage *unnecessary* interruptions. For instance, a cork board or mail slot can discourage interruptions by other school staff to deliver notes and messages.

Another problem we have encountered with interruptions is the tendency for them to trigger new activities. This can result in the sort of productive day where you end up tackling a completely different project than you intended. Worse, it can end up being the sort of day where you scratch the surface of several projects but make little progress on any of them.

The best way to address this is to have a clear idea of what you are trying to accomplish between fielding interruptions. If an interruption does occur, you should do whatever it takes to address the immediate need, but you should get *back to what you were doing beforehand*. If you have only one non-interrupt-driven task going at a time (in computer jargon, the "background task") you will at least minimize the "where was I" feeling, and the wandering about that ensues from it. (Remember that the background takes up most of the canvas.) If an interruption generates a task, schedule it or put it into your task management system in some systematic way, and then get back to what you were doing before.

Finally, understand that some interruptions are inevitable. If you have any projects that take more than a day to complete, you will have to interrupt the project to go to sleep! Also, priorities shift and you may have to change the background task you are working on. When you think about how you work on projects, consider how to put reasonable breaking points in. When you do break, find ways to leave yourself bookmarks, ways to make it easier to pick up where you left off.

Remember that not all time is alike. There may be better times of day for you to concentrate. Try to account not only for the flow of your typical days and weeks, but also for your own unique preferences when you set up times to discourage interruptions. Don't get discouraged, though. For many people, setting up well-defined private times is the most important improvement they can make in their time management.

We can help.

Ducks-in-a-Row ® Efficiency Consultants(TM) can help you find better strategies to manage your time. Get in touch with us. We will be pleased help you get your ducks in a row.

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