Why is it so hard to get anything done?

Written by Carl Davidson, Director of Strategy and Insight, Research First

If you ever get to the end of the day wondering why you haven’t achieved anything that you set out to do, ‘Interruption Science’ might have the answer.

As the name suggests, Interruption Science is the study of how interruptions affect our performance. What this science reveals is that interruptions don’t just reduce our performance, they ravage it.

Researchers at the University of California, Irvine, found that it took an average of 23 minutes for workers to return to their prior level of performance following an interruption. Research from the University of Michigan shows that even very short interruptions can seriously diminish performance. In that study participants who were interrupted for just three seconds were twice as likely to make a mistake on their original task as those who were not interrupted.

Another useful insight from Interruption Science is that we all get interrupted more than we probably realise. W Edwards Deming claimed that the average American worker experienced fifty interruptions a day but things seem to have gone downhill since then. One estimate is that we are now interrupted every three minutes. But even if that is an exaggeration, you can see the real problem here: when you combine the number of times we are interrupted with the time taken to recover from interruptions, it’s no surprise that so many of us feel we are getting nothing worthwhile accomplished.

Given this, is it any wonder that we try to fit the ‘real work’ into those times when we are on our own or have the office to ourselves? Count yourself in this group if you find yourself working late (or arriving early) so you can work in peace, or if you take work home to get it finished.

The bad news is that you can’t escape the interruption performance trap by working long hours. At least not for very long. There is a large body of evidence that shows long hours of work end up hurting your productivity (and your health). Similarly, multitasking can’t square the circle because it is mostly an illusion. That is, we don’t really do two things at once so much as switch between them quickly, undermining our performance on both. Or as Dilbert might put it, ‘multitasking is the single best way to screw up both jobs’.

Instead of trying to work around interruptions, we need to find ways to contain them. The best way to do this is to structure your day around blocks of time where you can focus on key tasks and not be interrupted. I like the idea of buying some ‘do not disturb’ signs and using them to let everyone else in the office know when you need to be left alone (some of those ‘Quiet Please’ signs you see on golf courses would be better still).

Alternatively, you could try sharing this article with your boss to help them understand how fewer interruptions benefit everyone (you might add that research in the USA argues that workplace interruptions cost that economy about US$500 billion a year in lost productivity). With your boss on-board, you can create a timesheet code for ‘head-down’ time which everyone in your office can use to work without interruption.

It might also pay to try to schedule this head-down as early in your working day as you can. While the jury is still out on this, there is some evidence from behavioural science that the first two hours of the working day are when we should be at our most productive (but that ability is often squandered with frequent interruptions).

If you struggle to get your employer to understand the value creating dedicated interruption-free working time, the next best approach might be to simply say ‘no’ more often. The key here will be making everyone understand that you will be more productive and effective if you are able to discriminate between the things that do and don’t need your attention. And if you need some help learning to say no, try rolling out the Polish proverb that says ‘Not my circus. Not my monkeys’.

There are also some simple things you can do to reduce interruptions. The most obvious is to turn off the alerts on your phone, email, and social media feeds. Another great insight from Interruption Science is that we are just as likely to interrupt ourselves as we are to be interrupted by someone else. If you’ve ever stopped working on something to check your Trademe auction, or look at a Facebook update, you’ll know what I mean. Try reducing how often you do that and you might be surprised what you can get done in a day.

Research First is the research partner for PRINZ. Visit them at www.researchfirst.co.nz.