In a word, interruptions. Productivity is a broad and nuanced topic, however the easiest, high-impact change you can make, to be more productive, is taking control of your interruptions. Interruptions are terrible for your productivity.
Between spending nearly 10% of the day in slack, and checking email/chat every 6 minutes, the average knowledge worker is left with roughly 1h 12m of productive time a day without being interrupted by email and IM. That’s not enough to get deep, intensive, or creative work done.
Today’s workplace has been completely inundated with distractions and notifications. However, we are ultimately responsible for our own productivity and there are some things we often do to shot ourselves in the foot. I’ve outlined three of the biggest mistakes I’ve made over the years that led to more interruptions and hurt my productivity.
TL&DR: The Action Plan
- Schedule your dedicated work-time first, and then your meetings
- Use tools to protect your time from interruptions and notifications.
- Identify and address your bad habits of responding to internal triggers with distractions.
Mistake #1: Scheduling meetings without thinking.
Meetings aren’t just huge time drains, they also break up the day. Too often, I would schedule my meetings without thinking, and then simply work with whatever time is left in between the cracks. This basically left me with a handful of 30–60 minute chunks throughout the day to get shit done. This is fine for some simple, shallow tasks, but not enough to move the needle on things that require context being loaded into your brain or creative problem solving come out of your brain. There are books that cover this topic much more intensively. Deep Work is a great one. Instead of scheduling meetings and then finding time to work, flip the script. Schedule formal, dedicated time to focus on your highest priority items in your calendar, and then find times to have meetings around your work.
When you do schedule meetings, try to do them back-to-back, or load up an entire day with meetings. This way you can keep other days as open as possible. I like it when teams take this approach to the extreme and institute a single “no-meeting day” each week.
Paul Graham’s has an excellent piece on this in the maker’s schedule
Mistake #2: Not controlling notifications
No article on reducing interruptions would be complete without talking about Slack. Slack needs no introduction, it’s completely transformed how people communicate in the modern workplace. But real-time collaboration means a super easy way for people to interrupt you. According to RescueTime, people today spend nearly 10% of their time in slack. This leads to a huge drain from:
- Responding to Direct Messages
- Helping people with their questions in public help-channels.
People consistently DM-ing you is a culture problem. People should be treating interrupting their co-workers as a last resort, instead of the first reaction. Questions that have information that other people may find useful, should be asked in a public channel, such that others can make use of your knowledge, instead of repeatedly having to ask you for the same information. Slack’s ‘Do Not Disturb’ mode can help a little, however it’s scheduling functionality is very limited and it often merely moves the interruption to someone else. To curb DM-ing, your organization must foster a culture that respects people’s time, have the appropriate public channels in place, and encourages people to solve problems on their own.
Helping people in public help-channels, can also be a time suck. Especially, if
- It’s a channel dedicated for your team/product and you’re responsible for the support experience in that channel.
- Your team is on-boarding new people who are bound to have a lot of questions
- You are the expert on a specific language, product, platform at your company and thus are the go-to-person for certain questions.
All three of the above lead to countless repeat questions, and if any of the above resonate with you, you’re not alone. It’s inevitable for any organization that grows past a certain amount of people. Shameless plug, if you’re struggling with any of these issues, we’ve actually built a slack app to help. And if our app doesn’t help, but there is something that would , I’ll personally take you out to lunch (Reachable at email@example.com). *Shameless plug over* Anyways, I’ve saved the toughest challenge to overcome for last — ourselves.
Mistake #3: Bad habits
Interruptions are not simply external (Ex. Someone emails us or comes to our desk), they can also be internally triggered. Internal triggers are more subtle than notifications and are often connected to our emotions and established routines. Boredom, loneliness, or insecurity can trigger an automatic, subconscious reaction to subdue that negative emotion. This can lead to very embedded habits, like checking Instagram every time you’re lonely, or Reddit every time you are bored. Responding to feelings by visiting websites, every single day, can wreak havoc on attention spans. I found myself immediately heading to YouTube to watch MMA videos, the second my brain was not occupied with something. It’s hard to wrestle with ideas and be creative when our brains are this desperate for stimulus and we can sometime be our own worst enemy when it comes to our productivity
An easy place to start is to simply install a Google Chrome Plugin that will block distracting websites. But I would suggest going beyond this and doing a full audit of your bad habits and triggers and what behavior they lead to. If you’re interested in learning more of how to correct bad habits, drop a request in the comments.
However, distraction blockers aren’t a silver bullet, since not all ‘distractions’ can simply be blocked. The average person checks email or IM 40 times every day. I was very guilty of this. Each of those context switches take anywhere from 1–9 minutes to recover from, if you’re doing deep work. Unless your job requires extremely fast responses (Be honest with yourself, most don’t), then I would suggest only checking emails once in the morning, and once in the late afternoon. This way you can handle responding to all your emails in batch.
The Action Plan
- Prioritize and schedule time for your important work first. You’ll figure out a way to squeeze in all the meetings and day-to-day stuff.
- If you’re getting interrupted too much on slack, or if slack help-channels are sucking up too much time in general, check out Landria.
- Every time we go to certain websites, it’s reinforcing our behavior to respond to certain emotions by instantly going to a website. This can lead to deeply rooted habits that can be very distracting. Start by identifying our bad habits and the triggers that cause them. A easy place to start for a lot of people is to simply block distracting websites during business hours and only checking email at the start and end of business day.