Where Does Your Time Go?

©2003 Esther Derby, www.estherderby.com

Last week I visited a development team working on the company’s next big product. As I talked to one of the team, I could hear phones ringing, pagers beeping, and see people popping up to talk over the cube walls. There was a general buzz in the room.

During the course of our conversation, the person I was talking to answered three questions from co-workers, looked at his pager five times, and answered a call on his cell phone.

“You’ve got a lot going on,” I said.

“Busy people get the most done,” the developer said with conviction.

But do they? It depends on the kind of “busy.”

Knowledge work (developing software, for example) requires immersion–deep concentration in solving a problem. And immersion requires periods of uninterrupted time.

What happens when we don’t have time for immersion? It takes longer to solve problems and accomplish work. Much longer. Unfortunately, sometimes when we feel busy all the time, we don’t notice that we’re not really getting much done.

If you find yourself feeling constantly busy or you leave the office wondering just what you really did finish, your busy-ness may be blocking you from accomplishing your work.

The Multitasking Myth

Remember the old joke about walking and chewing gum at the same time? Turns out that there’s some truth to that old saw–not that some people are too dumb to do two things at once, but that trying to do two (or more) things at once actually reduces cognitive functioning.

Multitasking isn”t always a bad thing–but the more complex the tasks or the more different (switching between coding and high-level design or to management activities), the greater the toll on time and quality. Tasks that require concentration–safety critical activities or activities that require attention to detail–are poor candidates for multitasking.

The more often you switch between tasks, the longer it will take to complete any one of the tasks. Each switch can eat up between 5 -30 minutes of your time.

That lost time goes to mentally closing out one task, picking up the other task, re-creating a train of thought and remembering exactly where you were. If the time between putting down a task is more than a short while, you may need to reorganize materials, put things away and take other materials back out. And then there’s emotional inertia: sometimes it takes some effort just to achieve concentration.

Interrupt-driven Switches

The worst switches come from interruptions–random events that pull our attention away from the work and break concentration. If an interruption lasts more than a couple of minutes, it’s going to take time to immerse again.

If you’re not working in physical and social isolation, you probably won’t be able to eliminate the interruptions in your workday, but you can reduce them.

One colleague, Steve, found that he was working around email–until he decided to turn off email notification. Now he checks and processes email when it fits his schedule, rather than letting each new message interrupt his concentration.

Take control of your phone. Answering machines and voice mail were invented so that we wouldn’t miss important calls while we were out. We can also use them to make sure we don’t miss important opportunities for concentration. Unless you’re on call or expecting a life or safety critical message, let voice mail pick up calls. Choose when you’ll answer the phone and when you’ll return calls.

If you have many drop-by visits from people who stop to ask questions or chat, establish office hours or close your door. If you don’t have a door, create a virtual door or post a sign, as my friend Eleanor does. Most questions can wait for an hour or two. Explain to people ahead of time what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Most people are willing to batch up their questions and stop by once or wait until a convenient time if they realize its helping you help them.

When Should You Switch Contexts?

Some switches are easier and less time-consuming that others.

When you’re stuck. One time or another, we all reach a point where we are not making forward progress. Then it’s time for a break to clear our heads. Work on something completely different, get up and move around, take a walk.

When you are at a logical stopping point. Switch when you’ve completed some portion of the task that you can easily wrap up and put down, like finishing the code for a particular feature. It may actually be helpful to put your work down before you run an acceptance test or desk check the code. Even a few minutes in between spent doing something un-related–but not requiring immersion in a different task– can help you see problems more clearly.

When you’re bored. Most of us like some variety in our work. There’s nothing wrong with putting a task down because you’re bored with it. Do look for patterns, though. If you are frequently bored with work that you’re paid to do, it can be a sign of a more significant problem or that you need a change.

If you find that you get to the end of the day wondering what exactly you did, gather some data to find out what factors keep you from achieving immersion.

For the next week or so, keep track of the number and type of interruptions. Keep track of the number of different tasks you’re working on, too.

At the end of each day, make a note of how much you feel you accomplished. Then count the actual tasks you finished vs. what you planned to finish. Sometimes you’ll find out that you accomplished more than you thought you did. And other times you’ll confirm that, as that nagging feeling suggested, you were busy, but didn’t get much done.

Keep track of what’s going on in your day to see patterns. Then take care of business by managing busy-ness.

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