Running on stolen time
For years, we have been told that managing our time is the key to improving efficiency. Now, a growing number of experts and authors are advocating relationship management in addition to time management. Could introducing blocks of focus time, learning to say no, and improving your ability to concentrate be the keys to using your time more efficiently?
“Some bandits don’t take money or jewellery; they steal your time,” says Edward G Brown, co-founder of Cohen Brown Management Group and author of the book ‘The Time Bandit Solution’. “We live in a culture where our time is rarely our own, where quiet time is mistaken for idleness, and interruptions no longer carry the taint of rudeness or rupture.” According to Brown, this “interruption culture” means that our colleagues, clients, friends, and family members can all be “Time Bandits”, as they have the opportunity to distract us and tear our focus away from the task at hand.
Unfortunately, interruptions are an everyday reality for most of us – especially at work. Not only do they cause us to lose a considerable amount of time – some estimates are as high as 40–60 per cent of our working day – they also cost businesses billions of dollars annually. According to analyst Jonathan B Spira, even by 2005 they were leaving US businesses an annual USD 588 billion out of pocket.
The biggest cause of interruption? Our colleagues. In a 2018 survey on workplace distractions by Udemy, 80 per cent of respondents cited co-workers as their biggest source of distraction. These workplace “time bandits”, coupled with other office distractions such as meetings, technology, and general noise, change the way we work – and not for the better. A UC Irvine Study has shown that although we compensate for interruptions by working faster, this increased pace comes at price: a higher propensity for mistakes, increased stress, higher levels of frustration, and a greater feeling of time pressure.
How, then, can we reverse the effects of this interruption culture and reclaim our time and focus?
Introduce focus time
One option is to introduce blocks of focused work into your schedule – a practice Brown refers to as “time locking”. “If we don’t control interruptions, we can’t control our time,” he explains. For busy CEOs and senior managers, time locking can free up valuable time to reflect on their strategy and priorities, something that Michael Porter, Director of the Institute for Strategy and Competitiveness at Harvard Business School, and Nitin Nohria, Dean of the school, have identified as being key during their long-term study on how CEOs spend their time. In addition, by setting an example and encouraging their teams to adopt this practice, they can help to build an office culture based on focus, and benefit from a productivity boost of up to 30 per cent.
So why aren’t we all introducing blocks of focus time into our days? One of the main reasons is that it requires us to say no – no to meetings in the middle of the day, no to spontaneous calls, no to responding to emails immediately.
Most of us believe that saying no makes us seem rude, unwilling, and unambitious; that declining a request will result in the loss of business, being overlooked for promotion, or the deterioration of relationships, both professional and personal. This is the result of what psychologists refer to as the “harshness bias”: we believe people will react more negatively than they actually do in reality.
In the majority of cases, being transparent about your priorities and capacity and saying no to certain projects or requests is generally respected, especially if you are then able to carve out dedicated focus time and deliver consistently high results on those projects you do take on.
Improve your ability to concentrate
Another reason we fail to block focus time is that, as Brown says, “we are our own worst time bandits”. Even when we have successfully carved out a quiet hour in the day to focus on a task, we need to be disciplined enough to resist the urge to check our emails, grab another cup of coffee, or pick up our smartphones (according to research from Rescue-Time, an app that monitors phone use, people spend an average of three hours and 15 minutes on their phones every day, and that certainly doesn’t help productivity).
Cal Newport, an associate professor at the University of Georgetown and author of six self-improvement books, advocates “deep work” as a way to focus in a distracted world. He defines deep work as “tasks that create new value and are hard to replicate, push cognitive abilities to their limit, performed free from distractions”. It is, however, a skill that needs to be actively developed if you want to reach even four hours of deep work a day, the maximum capacity that most people have, according to his research.
But for those who are prepared to invest in developing this skill, through a combination of routine and habit building, goal-setting, and avoiding multitasking, the advantages can be significant. Indeed, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Carl Jung, and Mark Twain have all used versions of the deep work approach to great success.
Reclaiming stolen time
Of course, all this is easier said than done. But the long-term benefits of using our time more effectively seem to outweigh the short-term costs. By working on our relationship management skills, not only with our colleagues, families, and friends but also with ourselves, we might be able to start reversing our interruption culture and reclaim control of our time.