Getting Real Work Done

Tuesday, October 22, 2013 by Rainer Stropek

It is a well-known fact that constant interruptions can have quite negative consequences on your productivity. Instead of being able to concentrate on the important tasks you planned for a certain day, you are kept busy by phone calls, ad-hoc meetings, incoming emails, social media notifications, etc. As a knowledge worker I struggle with this problem, too. As an entrepreneur building a project time tracking software, I am constantly looking for ways to cope with it. In this blog article I want to share some of my current thoughts on the topic of productivity and interruptions.

Flow – The Ideal State of Mind for Productivity

Sometimes we manage to get into a state of mind where we fully lose ourselves in our work. Programming in The Zone, that’s how for instance software developers call these moments of high concentrated work and ultimate productivity. It turns out that this mysterious Flow is a well-researched phenomenon in psychology.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the psychology professor who is said to be the architect of the notion Flow, has found seven conditions that seem to be there when a person is in flow. The first one is complete involvement in what we are doing, being focused and concentrated. Multitasking is a Flow-killer as humans can only pay attention to a certain amount of information at a time. Therefore, interruptions forcing us to concentrate on a new topic stop Flow experiences almost certainly.

Watch Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi speaking about the Flow in this interesting TED video.

Change Your Working Environment to Foster the Flow

We cannot force the Flow to happen but we can create prerequisites that foster its emergence. The challenge level of your work and your skills are primarily important for that. However, an environment with constant distractions and interruptions will prevent the Flow even if you have the right balance between challenge and skills.

Excursus Software Development:
Csikszentmihalyi emphasis that immediate feedback is an important precondition for the Flow. This maybe explains why so many software developers react very negatively on tools slowing down their working speed (e.g. IDE plugins that lead to waiting times, long build times, slow unit tests, etc.).

Interruptions Are a Problem, Why Not Simply Getting Rid Of Them?

The usual tip for knowledge workers to become more productive is to get rid of notifications. Turn off Outlook’s email desktop alerts and sounds, close Skype or at least set your status to Do Not Disturb, mute your phone. These are just a few examples of recommendations you find on the web.

The problem is that being responsive to electronic communication is a key part of many people’s working life today. They cannot simply turn everything off because an important customer or colleague might need them. So do we have no other alternative to constant interruptions?

Consciously Dedicate Your Time

In my personal working life, I try to solve the problem by consciously dedicating blocks of time to certain tasks.

Communication Time

When I am in the office not dealing with a specific hard piece of work, I allow notifications to happen. I want to be easy to reach and responsive. During such days, I typically work on tasks with rather low complexity. Therefore, multitasking and pausing/resuming tasks is possible.

Studies by Gloria Mark and Mary Czerwinski (Microsoft Research) have shown that large screen sizes lead to higher productivity. They say that there is no other single tweak to a computer system that raises productivity so significantly. Next time you try to convince your boss to give you a larger or additional screen, you can forward the article Meet the Life Hackers from New York Times Magazine. The studies of Mark and Czerwinski are cited there.

With time cockpit, I can show you how such days look like. Both days in the following screenshot (click to enlarge) do not contain artificial demo data. They show days from my real working life.

The example on the left shows how important Outlook and email is during such a day. In fact I spent most of the day in Outlook (orange-marked areas in the time line). I have written a bunch of emails (yellow rhombs).

The example on the right is similar. You can see that I did not focus on a single task on that day. I switched between windows and applications very frequently and – again – I communicated a lot using email.

In the past, I sometimes felt bad after such days. I was stressed out even though I hadn’t made any progress on larger work items. Today, I try to perceive such days differently. I have to communicate, it is part of my job. Yes, such days are often stressful but I accept that they are part of my job.

If you have the strong feeling that stress is making you sick, I encourage you to watch Kelly McGonigal’s TED talk How to make stress your friend.

Time to Concentrate

When it’s time to work on complex tasks that require concentration, I structure my day completely different. Notifications and interruptions are banned as much as possible. I am telling customers and colleagues that I have to go into retreat to focus on a piece of work and ask them for their understanding if I do not immediately answer requests.

I also consciously “drive into” the task by putting everything else (digitally, mentally, and physically) out of my way. For me, this is equally important to turning of external distortions. Studies have shown that we tend to interrupt ourselves as often as others are interrupting us. Therefore, getting oneself into a task mentally is important in times where high productivity is needed.

I would like to demonstrate how such days look like with some other examples from my personal time cockpit activity logs (click to enlarge).

The screenshot above shows a day on which I prepared samples for a conference talk about the programming platform AngularJS. Time cockpit’s keyword cloud clearly indicates that I concentrated nearly 100% on the very work item I had to complete on that day. Only in the evening you see outgoing emails. Outlook is not even mentioned in the top items in my Window Title histogram.

As you can see, this day was a long working day. However, I still can remember that day. When I turned off my laptop, I didn’t feel stressed or tired out. On the contrary, I felt good. I managed to keep up the Flow at least for some time during my software development work.

To be honest, I do not always manage to work so focused every time I plan to. The following two screenshots (click to enlarge) show a morning and an afternoon where I could concentrate on a single topic to a certain degree. However, there were interruptions which I could not prevent.

Consequences on Time Cockpit

When we designed time cockpit, we didn’t want to primarily build a productivity tool giving you feedback about how focused you worked. However, we wanted to take the working life reality of interruptions into account. If you work on project A and you have to interrupt your work for an hour to work on an urgent issue in project B, you should not need to make manual notes. The time cockpit activity log will remind you to not forget or wrongly allocate your billable hours.

We are glad whenever people tell us that the concept works. Elisabeth Winterheller from MEA IT told us for instance: “Sometimes time tracking cannot be updated every single day. From my own experience I know that during a busy week I need to fully concentrate on my projects. I don’t want to bother with time tracking. In such cases I make intense use of time cockpit’s activity log and time cockpit’s integration of Microsoft Outlook. With the signals in the activity log I can accurately recover what I have done without taking any manual notes. Thus I can be sure that no billable hours get lost.” That’s exactly what we hand in mind when starting the time cockpit project.

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