One of the reasons you don’t spend Friday afternoons at the beach is that you spend 20% of your time finding your way back after ‘Do you have a moment?’.
Let’s say, the next to-do on your list would take you 30 minutes from start to finish, if you are not interrupted. But, since you can’t lock yourself in the closet, you get interrupted. Thus, it takes you 46 minutes (*) to complete your 30-minute to-do, 38 of which are productive and 8 are not. The ratio worsens the longer the interruptions.
Generally, you have to add at least 20% of unproductive time on top of your productive time to get the time it actually takes you to get from start to finish. That’s scary. It turns 10-hour work days into 12-hour work days and (among other things) is one of the reasons you don’t spend Friday afternoons at the beach.
Here are three ideas you can try to bring your number below 20%. These ideas are not about preventing the interruptions. They are all about leaving breadcrumbs to help your brain snap back to the original problem more quickly.
1) Before turning your attention toward a distraction, take 15 seconds and write down a clue for what you were doing and what should come next. It doesn’t have to be much, just enough to set you right back on track.
2) Before you take a longer break or stop for the day, write down what comes next. (It’s hard since you really just want to get out, but it’s much harder to do the same after the break.)
3) Before you start working on a to-do, break it down into smaller steps. You can easily come up with 10 – 20 steps for a 30 minute task. Write those down. No need to track them while you work on the to-do. After a distraction, skim the list starting at the top until you find the step you are on. The list works like a ramp that launches your thoughts in the right direction.
All three ideas start with ‘before’. You pay a small price upfront in order to avoid a larger price tag afterwards. It’s a good deal since you might want to go to the beach on Friday.
Here is where the numbers come from. The model is over-simplified and favors your productivity. As a lot of research shows, the reality is actually more grim.
We assume you are interrupted every 10 minutes and each interruption takes two minutes of your time. We count those two minutes as productive time although they don’t contribute to your to-do. After those two minutes you need one (unproductive) minute to find the exact point you were at when the distraction came your way. You need another two (semi-productive minutes) to get back to full speed. Thus, handling the interruption takes you 5 minutes during which you effectively work one minute on your to-do and two minutes on something else. Thus, after the first interruption, you effectively work 6 minutes on your to-do in every 10 minute time window.
Adding it all up, you spend 30 minutes on your to-do, 8 minutes on the work related to the interruptions. You also waste 8 minutes.)