me in time

I'd rather be called a pain in the ass than have one more person ask me softly and sweetly, "Hey, do you have a minute?"

No. I don't.

As a matter of fact, if I had all the minutes I've lost here, there and everywhere in the past few weeks, I'd have already completed this article … and a half dozen more.

Ok, maybe I'm exaggerating my potential productivity. But at a minimum, I like to think I'd have accomplished something.

Edward G. Brown, author of "The Time Bandit Solution," tends to agree.

Unproductive, Unwanted and Unnecessary

"People feel free to interrupt others with that innocent-sounding question, 'Got a minute?' And the interrupted people think they have to be polite and say, 'Sure, how can I help?' — even when they are desperately busy on a deadline. They let the Time Bandit steal their time because they have been acculturated to believe they must," he said.

But concentration is a fragile thing, and any interruption, however brief, resets focus to zero. It stops your momentum, and forces you to restart and rethink — the way an incoming call cuts your Internet connection when you're using your phone as a mobile hotspot.

"We live in an interruption culture," Brown explained to CMSWire.

And it persists for a very simple reason, he contends.

"We like it. We perpetuate it."

Now Hold On

Is Brown blaming the victims — suggesting that modern workers aren't doing enough to stem the flow of questions and conversation?

In a way, yes.

"We love our smart phones, our routers, our search engines, our unfettered access and exposure to everybody and everything," he said.

"We demand to be immediately informed, via alerts on our stash of devices, what’s happening with the weather, traffic, stock market, politics, crime, sports, celebrities, our favorite Twitter feeds and our Facebook friends. Who can wait for the evening news or the morning paper when a story might be going viral?"

If you really want to diminish interruptions and distractions at work, he argued, there’s a trade-off.

"You have to push back on the Interruption Culture that satisfies so many of your urges but interferes with getting your work done.”

Attention Spans in a Collaborative World

Brown is president, co-chairman and co-founder of Los Angeles-based Cohen Brown Management Group, which provides efficiency and workflow consulting to big-name financial firms like Citibank and Bank of America.

Today's workforce, he contends, feels entitled to interrupt. Blame it on everything from social media to open floor plan offices that invite steady streams of conversation.

How many times have you stopped working on a project to check the latest texts on your phone? How many times have you responded to a co-worker who wanted your attention "just for a second"?

How many times were you this close to completing a task but lost concentration because of a real or virtual interruption?

Every 3 Minutes

Office workers are interrupted — or self-interrupt — about every three minutes, according to Gloria Mark, a professor of informatics at the University of California, Irvine, who studies digital distraction. Once interrupted, it can take some 23 minutes for a worker to return to the original task, she said.

In a 2008 study, Marks and two other researchers, Daniela Gudith, an organizational psychologist and Ulrich Klocke, Assistant professor at Humboldt University of Berlin, found there's another cost to interruptions. People compensate for the lost time by working faster, resulting in more stress, higher frustration, time pressure and effort.

Hurry Up … I Want to Check Facebook

So what's the solution? Brown offers a five-pronged strategy to diminish interruptions and distractions at work.

  1. Calculate the cost of the interruptions. As long as you tend to think that distractions are innocuous, short-lived and rare, you are not going to change. But if you record how much time distractions really cost you for a few days, you'll be more motivated to change.
  2. Politely deter people who interrupt. Rather than dropping everything to help a colleague, explain you need to complete some work first but are willing to provide your full, undivided attention later. Remember, you are trying to accomplish two things: protect your time and be a great team player.
  3. Rein in your wandering mind by 1) transcending the environment by rising above physical issues like the temperature, the noise and the feel of your chair; 2) Visualizing the positive things that will result from completing your work; and 3) resisting counterproductive thought that threaten your focus ("No, I do not need to check my emails right now”).
  4. Know what's important. Identify the activities, which, if you neglect them, will have dire consequences for your work, your job or your personal life. The exercise of identifying the most essential tasks tells you precisely why you have to protect your time – you need to get the things on the Must Do List done.
  5. Create a Whole-Week Plan. A weekly plan gives you a structure for leveraging your “extra” time by planning a whole week in advance. The process of committing your plan to paper embeds your plan into your consciousness. Writing it down creates thinking and spurs creativity and execution. And best of all it is a reliable tool when distractions come up and you’re tempted to backslide.
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