Researchers at the University of California, Irvine, found the typical office worker is interrupted every three minutes and five seconds, taking up to 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back on task. Such disruptions eat up 28 billion wasted hours a year, at a loss of almost $1 trillion to the U.S. economy.
So how can people improve their time management skills and stop switching between tasks to maintain focus?
Revisit your calendar
When you’re not sure where your time is going, look to a source of truth–your calendar. Where is most of your day spent? If it’s in meetings, a solid first step in carving out more time for productivity is to evaluate each meeting and understand whether or not it could be eliminated. Even the smallest of interruptions add up over time.
In an interview with Catherine Webb, the blog manager at Hubstaff said:
“Unnecessary meetings are one of the biggest time wasters we see in remote work. Since many companies recently started working from home for the first time, a lot of managers are using daily check-in meetings to stay informed. Some teams have two or three check-in meetings every day! A check-in meeting eats up an hour or more that could have been used for productive work, and the interruption makes it harder for your team to focus on their top priorities. Two check-ins every day easily adds up to 10 hours a week, which is a whopping 25% of your team’s potentially productive time. Add in any other meetings on the calendar and you might find that your team is spending 30% to 50% of their time in meetings that could be automated or eliminated.”
Stop switching between tasks
Google searches for “flow state” spiked in mid-April this year, which could have something to do with people trying to optimize their time from home. According to Headspace, psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Jeanne Nakamura call flow state a feeling where, under the right conditions, you become fully immersed in whatever you are doing. Like the days when code or marketing content just flows from your brain to your computer with ease.
While flow state is ideal for hard-to-complete tasks, it’s tough to achieve consistently. Three practices can help:
- Quieting internal stimuli (being too hot/cold, distracted with thoughts)
- Blocking external stimuli (noise, kids, texts, phone calls)
- Using practiced mental processes (as opposed to those that you are unfamiliar with and require additional mental load or meta-focus to complete)
Let me dive into the third practice because it’s the most complicated. You’ll need to train your brain on required tasks in order for those tasks to become part of your muscle memory. Just like when you make a sandwich for lunch, you go on autopilot–not necessarily thinking through all of the steps to doing so.
Mike Vardy, the founder of Productivityist, defines the opposite of these autopilot mental processes as “beginner’s mind.” He says you can do a lot of simple things to more easily attain a flow state during your everyday tasks. For example, “It’s imperative to write down the verb on a to-do list as explicitly as possible so you don’t have to fumble through the task with beginner’s mind.” Rather than writing, “Call Jim,” include details and write, “Call Jim at 555-5555 to respond to questions on the data set.”
As you work to reach a flow state, it’s helpful to block time away from external distractions to quiet internal stimuli and focus on those tough tasks. Hopefully, this keeps you in flow for longer, without interruptions—which is essential because it takes up to 23 minutes to get back on track after every interruption.
Hold yourself accountable
When you’re working in an office, surrounded by coworkers, the environment itself breeds accountability. People will notice if you’re not exactly doing your job. But working from home is another story. Who’s there to notice if you’re staying on track or not? Though a flexible environment can lead to increased creativity for some, it can also lead to distractions and getting tied up in non-work-related tasks for others.
If you or your colleagues are having difficulty with the transition to working at home, consider the advice of Ethan Taub, the CEO of Goalry and Loanry, on staying accountable: “When at home, I highly advise sticking to a schedule or, if you live with others, have them tell you if they notice you slacking off. We all do it, it’s a natural thing, but teach yourself to avoid it.”
At Capacity, most of us weren’t working remotely until coronavirus hit. However, we’ve always had a flexible schedule and unlimited PTO. With trust ingrained in our culture, every team member has the ability to take the time they need to be their most productive selves. This includes time to dedicate to family, friends, and other outside factors, which can weigh heavily on people. Because of the trusting environment we provide, we’ve seen great benefits when it comes to accountability and productivity during the workday.
I’d encourage all company leaders to entrust their team members with a bit more flexibility as everyone figures out how to be their most productive selves and best hold themselves accountable. Ideally, this will breed more productive, loyal, and happy team members and a better business bottom line.
David Karandish is the founder and CEO of Capacity, an enterprise artificial intelligence company building a secure, AI-native knowledge-sharing platform to help teams do their best work–and save time and money.