Why can't you get anything done from 9 to 5?
Have you ever caught yourself asking that?
Have you ever noticed that if you work late into the evening or on a weekend, when nobody else is around, sometimes you can get a whole week's worth of work done in just a few hours? Why does that happen?
If your work requires thought, the culprits killing your productivity are probably "Flowbusters".
Huh? What is flow? Why is that important? What would bust it? Can we do anything about that?
Flow is a psychological state of deep, almost meditative concentration on what you are doing. You are totally focused on the challenge at hand, shutting out everyone and everything else, you lose all track of time. In slang terms, you are "really cranking" -- the work is just "flowing naturally", you're "on a roll". Flow is the most productive state you can be in to complete thought intensive work.
I vividly remember a time I was developing software. I felt like I was on a roll, like I was getting a lot done, but not paying attention to how much. I looked up at the clock and ...
What?? No way! That can't be!! I had not moved from my chair in 8 hours? How can that be?? It felt like only an hour or two! During that time I had designed, created, tested, documented, and implemented 30 software modules. More than a week's worth of work in just a few hours?? Wow!!! Feelings of disbelief, doubt, then wonder, verifying, pride, powerful sense of accomplishment.
Designing software, preparing your tax return, planning your marketing campaign, writing your next book, learning that new technical skill -- anything you do that is thought intensive requires that you get into flow.
Here's the challenge: It can take you 15-20 minutes to immerse yourself into flow. It only takes a split-second interruption to jar you out of it. The phone rang, your dog barked, your co-worker just barged in with a question, Instant Messenger just beeped -- our days are full of flowbusters.
That 5 minute phone call you just handled cost you 20 minutes in lost productivity: 5 minutes for the call plus 15 minutes more to get back into flow. That 1 minute "walk-in" question you just answered cost you 16 minutes in lost productivity. That loud hall-way "drive by" conversation you just overheard cost you another 15-20 minutes.
If your flow is interrupted repeatedly, you can become so frustrated you can't ever get back into flow. It only takes one interruption every 15 minutes and you will NEVER get into flow begin with -- you can go a whole day without accomplishing any of "your" work.
So what can you do about it?
In his best selling book Unlimited Power : The New Science Of Personal Achievement, and his best selling Personal Power audio program Anthony Robbins teaches a technique called "anchoring". You can create "anchors" that will instantly trigger whatever psychological states you desire. I've created anchors that can snap me into flow in 1-2 seconds instead of the usual 15+ minutes. Although once there, after an interruption, I sometimes still need to rely on my mantra "What was I doing? What was I doing? What was I doing?"
An ever better solution is to not get interrupted in the first place. Does your phone make a noise? You can silence it. Forward it to voice mail or have someone else screen your calls. You'll probably have to deal with the calls eventually, but you can do so by bundling all your calls into one block of concentrated time. This won't work if you are operating a "help desk" or your job is to receive sales calls or do telephone consultation. One workaround for small teams I've led has been to designate one person to receive all incoming calls and handle all interruptions. They "run interference" for the rest of the team. They try to handle the calls themselves but if they can't, they queue it up for others to handle later. Only in case of an emergency will they interrupt someone's flow. We like to put that role on a rotation so we don't burn out the person in that "hot seat", everybody gets their turn thus everybody appreciates the "interference runner" when they're not in that "hot seat".
Do you get incoming phone calls from telemarketers? If you have an American phone number you can add it to the National Do Not Call registry. You could also invest in a TeleZapper, an electronic device you add to your phone line. Whenever you, or your answering machine, answers your phone the TeleZapper emits an electronic tone indicating your phone has been disconnected. When "real people" phone you it's a non-issue. They'll hear the beeps but can still get through to you. But, when a Telemarketer's computer phones you, it detects the beeps, believes your phone has been disconnected, hangs up, and usually will drop you from their database. Over time your telemarketing calls should decrease.
Do you get Instant Messenger interruptions (IM)? Why not log out or exit the program or mute your computer's speaker.
Does your Email program pop up messages or beep every time you get in incoming Email? You should be able to turn that off in the program options. I use Microsoft Outlook so I go into the Tools menu, select options. On the "other" tab, in the "General" pane's "Advanced Options" I uncheck "Provide feedback with sound".
If I don't want my appointment reminders noisly nagging me, in the "Reminder Options" I uncheck "Play reminder sound". For noisy neighbors, often the best approach is to talk to them about it. For "drive by" hall-way conversations, I've gone so far as to put up posters saying: "Quiet Please! The Life You Save May Be Your Own!". Other people I've worked with have put up flags or "crime scene" tape to indicate when they need to be in flow.
For walk-in complainers, question askers, socializers, you probably do not want to provide a chair so they can sit and get comfortable. If they have to stand, the discomfort of that will often "encourage" them to keep it brief. For those you do not want to deal with, a good direct approach is to ask them to come back at a time you know will be inconvenient for them. If you must deal with them, you can ask them come back in 5-10 minutes to give you time to "shut down" gracefully - doing so will speed up your re-entry into flow. Alternately, if you want to have a little fun at their expense, you could put up various "take a number" type signs. A better approach is to schedule blocks of "quiet time" for uninterrupted "flow work" (no phone calls, no email, no walk-ins, no IMing) and schedule other blocks of time for "non-flow" work like interruptions, phone calls, appointments, and instant messaging.
For other noise you could use an Ipod or Walkman with headphones to generate "white noise" background music to drown out noise level. That works best with instrumental music, you don't want to be singing along with the music.
If necessary, you may need to "go hide" somewhere nobody else is aware of so you can get the quiet solitude you need for flow work.
Do you have an annoying co-worker who likes to answer their voicemail on speakerphone? Ask them to not do that. Or, if you are in a playful mood, leave them very embarassing voicemails. "This is Bunny from the Pink Flamingo topless bar, I need to talk to you about your job application..."
For more information about flow and other productivity aids, other productivity killers, and ways companies routinely commit "Teamacide", check out the book Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams (Second Edition) by Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister. If you want to study flow in depth, check out Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihal. For more information on anchoring and other highly effective ways to operate your mind and body, check out Tony Robbins' best selling book Unlimited Power : The New Science Of Personal Achievement, and his best selling Personal Power audio program.
The books are available in bookstores and at amazon.com:
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