You Are Creating The Problem With Your Productivity

The IT Manager for our business unit dropped into my office and looked nervous.

“Hey Ian, just wanted you to know that we are aware of the issues with reporting and we’re working on it.”

I had no idea what he was talking about.

“Reporting issues?”

“Yeah, our data warehouse is having issues, so your standard reports haven’t been going out for the past three weeks.”

“Which reports?”

He showed me a long list of nearly 50 reports. Some were measuring things we hadn’t paid attention to in years.

“Who typically receives these reports and how often?”

He showed me an even longer list of managers, assistants, and front line staff.

“Some reports go out daily and others weekly.”

“OK, thanks for the heads up.”

After he left my office, I made a few phone calls. Starting with my direct reports, I asked if it was creating problems that our standard reports weren’t arriving on time.

To a person, they had no idea what I was talking about.

I assumed that I was starting too high in the organization and next called folks who reported to these executives.

Only a few people noticed that the reports weren’t coming. I pressed them on how vital the reports were.

“Not much but I check them just to make sure. A few reports require an update from me, so I have to fill out fields in the system.”

“How does it help you to complete those fields?”

“Not sure. I assume someone is doing something with the information.”

It’s Just The Way We’ve Always Done It

I call this phenomenon “task creep,” which is prevalent in large companies and your personal life alike.

A problem arises in business, and a process is put in place. That process is useful for a short time.

The problem slowly goes away, but the tasks added to fix the initial problem remain in place.

It could be something as simple as opening, reviewing and commenting on a simple report. This task might take someone 30 seconds and in itself, is not a big deal.

Leverage that task by 200 people doing the same thing every week and you start to have a bigger problem. Multiply that task by 100 other mundane tasks, and you’re wasting 1–2 hours a week on items that drive no productivity benefits.

I wasn’t shocked that so many reports were going out regularly. I was surprised that three weeks went by and no one seemed to notice.

Create A “Stop Doing List”

I walked down to our IT Manager and told him to quit working on the problem. We would stop sending those reports until someone screamed to me that we needed to reinstate them.

I asked him to make a list of any other reporting or automated interruptions that our systems were sending out.

Our CRM software was notification-crazy. Everything seemed to be an emergency, so all of our front line employees had hundreds of notifications all the time.

They just got used to ignoring these notifications.

If everything is an emergency, nothing is an emergency. Why were people being notified about everything?

The software was set up like that from the beginning. Like most software rollouts, we created a small user group that helped test the software and design an implementation process.

They enthusiastically overdesigned the system to use every new “bell and whistle.” If one person in a group of 10 users felt like a notification would be helpful, it was approved.

It cost nothing to the business to initially turn on an alert. Then hundreds started getting that alert who didn’t need it.

We started killing alerts and notifications left and right. My only rule was that to reinstate a report or alert; we needed a large group of users to complain. If not, it went away for good.

Companies don’t do this type of thing often enough and it starts with owners and executives. Unless senior leaders create a safe zone where employees can suggest killing off sacred cows, people will continue doing what they’re told and collecting a paycheck.

23 Minutes and 15 Seconds

Gloria Mark is a professor at the University of California, Irvine. Her team experimented to learn the real cost of an interruption by studying knowledge workers at IT and finance companies over a week.

They found that people switch activities every three minutes and five seconds and roughly half of the distractions are self-inflicted.

Additionally, they found that it took an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to return to the original task each time they were distracted. Very few people hit a period of flow work during a typical working day.

You are working on a project, and a Facebook alert diverts your attention. You cruise around your feed and while your phone is unlocked, jump into Instagram and then LinkedIn.

While you’re in the social media neighborhood, you read a Quora article from Ian Mathews, another colossal waste of time.

You put your phone down and look back at your computer to see that you have seven unread emails in Outlook. You reply, forward, delete and move those messages.

Twenty-three minutes and 15 seconds later, you dive back into your project for another three minutes and five seconds of uninterrupted work.

Don’t Trust Your Willpower

If I want to stop eating peanut butter, I don’t trust my ability to pass on the jar of Jif. I like peanut butter too much.

I quit buying it and putting it in my house. Out of sight, out of mind.

If I need to get into a flow state for anything, I do the same with potential distractions.

  1. Switch to “Work Offline” in Microsoft Outlook, or whatever email software you use. I get distracted as quickly as anyone by a new email, so I typically open emails in batches, on my time and when I decide they are important.
  2. Delete social media off of your phone during working hours, or forever. 90% of my interaction with social media is on a web browser. I don’t need a LinkedIn update every time someone posts or likes an article. Once you get into your smartphone, you might as well write off 30–45 minutes if you have Instagram, Facebook, Quora, Medium, Twitter and LinkedIn waiting for you with red numbered notifications.
  3. Turn off Notifications on every app. There is just nothing important enough on social media that you need to know right away. The same goes for email, text, and Whatsapp.
  4. Make a Stop Doing list. Take a hard look at your time and figure out what is stopping you from completing an assignment every 3 minutes and 5 seconds. If it is a regular interruption, find a way to eliminate it. If it is a task at work that feels redundant, talk to your boss about it. You will be surprised by how much crap people waste time on, assuming their boss wants it. Managers are often happy to eliminate redundant work that is keeping you from being productive.

I started writing this article while I was in the middle of reviewing graphic design candidates, which is painstakingly boring work. While doing some research on Gloria Mark for this article, I fell into a wormhole on NFL free agency, wasting more time.

Two hours later, I am about to submit this article and get back to reviewing candidates, unless I can figure out another creative way of procrastinating . . . hey, is that peanut butter?

Mmmh, peanut butter.