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
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
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
Projects and Teams, copyright 1987, Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister, Dorset
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
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
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
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.
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.