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Avoid the interrupt-driven model of time management

Being the go-to guy is great for client relations and your ego, but it can cut into the time you spend working on big projects and innovating. Here are four steps for improving your time management habits.

Several years ago, I suddenly realized that my approach to time management closely resembled an interrupt-driven multitasking operating system. I'd spend most of the day responding to ad hoc requests, questions, and emergencies. Whenever I'd finally get some idle time, I'd lean back in my chair, wipe my brow, and think, "Now what was it I was supposed to be doing?" It never made sense to start the day with a to-do list, because I'd rarely be able to cross even one thing off by the evening.

I must admit, it was nice to be the go-to guy for my clients and colleagues. They always knew that whenever they'd call or e-mail, they'd get a helpful response in short order. It was a bit of an ego trip for me, and all those micro-engagements billed at half-hour or even 15-minute minimum increments added up to some real revenue. But filling that role almost full-time was turning me into a glorified tech support rep. Playing nursemaid to all the existing solutions was keeping me from exercising my full potential to create new solutions and to stay on top of the latest technologies. During the short intervals when I wasn't being driven by interruptions, I would often find it hard to get started on my big projects, knowing that I would soon be interrupted again. That was the easiest excuse in the world to procrastinate -- and we procrastinators know that it doesn't take much.

I didn't want to become just "the guy who can answer all of your questions about X"... while X slowly but surely becomes obsolete. Nor did I want to be known as a really smart guy who takes forever to complete a big project. So I decided to make some changes and come up with better strategies for managing my time, which include the following four steps:

  • Make interruptions the exception rather than the rule. How often does that "emergency" actually threaten a life or a business if it isn't addressed within an hour or two? How many of those questions are asked simply because it's convenient -- when the questioner could have found the same answer by spending two minutes with Google? What request for services can't wait until tomorrow for an answer? Sure, there are exceptions -- but as a rule, you should deflect interruptions as much as possible when working on a project. Don't answer the phone -- the client can leave a message. Turn off e-mail notification and IM -- you can read it later. Allocate a specific time when you'll respond to all these communications en masse. If your client has physical access to you, make sure they know that they should reserve interruptions for true emergencies.
  • Allocate large chunks of time to individual projects. Instead of trying to work a little bit on each of your pending projects, ignore all but one or two projects each day. That allows you to concentrate deeply on each task and make real progress, and it avoids the problems associated with context switching. For instance, this morning I spent the first hour catching up on communications: e-mail, feeds, and online discussions (especially on TechRepublic, of course). The next two hours are allocated to writing this article (so far, I'm making good time!), then the entire afternoon will be devoted to a project for one of my clients. At the end of the day, I'll empty my email Inbox again -- but in the meantime, I'll only scan it for real emergencies every few hours. I have other projects in progress that I'm intentionally ignoring today.
  • Don't take on too many projects. If you're not going to give attention to every project on your plate each day, then you definitely don't want to have too many projects in progress at once. Your clients are not likely to be very happy with not hearing from you for several days at a time when they're expecting you to produce something for them. If you have too much work piled up, you can also start to feel overwhelmed and find it difficult to choose what to work on next. So pick your projects well, and make sure your customers have the right expectations about how much time you'll spend on them.
  • Reserve time for self-improvement. As I mentioned above, you need to stay on top of new developments in the industry if you hope to continue to provide value to your clients well into the future. So you can't afford to be the hamster in a wheel, working like mad and not getting anywhere. You might find a paying gig on the bleeding edge, but those are rare -- and dangerous. Rather than learning what not to do while working on your clients' projects, make some time to be your own consultant and teach yourself new things. I typically reserve Monday afternoons for "me time" -- it makes me look forward to Mondays!

Using these steps, I've moved from an interrupt-driven model to more of a prioritized batch-processing queue. That may sound like a step backwards technologically, but it sure helps reduce thrashing for the old wet computer inside my skull. Until someone invents an AI that can do consulting, that's all I've got to work with. Hmm... sounds like an idea for a Monday project.

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About

Chip Camden has been programming since 1978, and he's still not done. An independent consultant since 1991, Chip specializes in software development tools, languages, and migration to new technology. Besides writing for TechRepublic's IT Consultant b...

28 comments
wrlang
wrlang

I ran into a person who would rather be interrupted than use email or the phone. I'd send him an email and he would respond that he didn't understand what I meant, so I'd print off the email and walk across the building and read it verbatim and he would understand. He could obviously read, so I guess he was just the overtly verbal/social type. After a dozen - come on over so we can talk - responses it became obvious he wanted/needed/enjoyed the interruptions. He was always working late playing catchup as well. Management by walking around is very popular where I work now. People walking the halls constantly, yelling over the top of everyone's heads, walking into an occupied cube to hand something over the wall to someone else. For a while it was so noisey I had use earplugs on phone calls. Then the people on the other end would ask me to mute my phone so they could hear each other. Finally I had to schedule a conference room just for me or use my cell in the stair well to hear the conversation. Pretty much a free for all.

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

One of the marketing coaches I subscribe to is Dan Kennedy. In one of his videos he has a time and productivity consultant Lee Milteer talk about procrastination and time management. During that talk she commented that there are two major downsides to being freely available ... one is the impact on productivity but there is another and more important impact ... people do not respect people they can connect with directly. We're programmed to believe that important people (CEOs, COOs, CIOs, and company Presidents) all have secretaries and gatekeepers. These people arrange their days and appointments. If you can be immediately reached then you obviously don't have a gatekeeper and therefore obviously can't be important. If you want people to believe that you are worth the money (or more) then you need to convince them that you are too busy servicing other people who want your time to waste time answering their unimportant questions. Interesting take by a marketing type. It does however, explain why being on site full-time is such a blow to our credibility as consultants. Glen Ford, PMP http://www.trainingnow.ca

ray.alami
ray.alami

Absolutely, Its about educating those around you, dare I say, to grow up and respect your own time. A colleague many years ago had an annoying, trite, little mantra, "A lack of planning on your part, does not constitute an emergency on mine". Well, she was bloody right!

phyrespam
phyrespam

When working in an office, how do you discourage other people from insisting on "sending interrupts"? My biggest obstacle to finishing a job on-time is random walk-in visits. Especially when people walk in with "Did you get my email?" and other such arbitrary time-wasting!

Justin James
Justin James

I've been railing about this for years. At my last job, my entire day would work like this. Heck, everyone who was not an hourly employee worked like this. As a result, none of us got "real work" done 9 - 5, we had to wait until we were home and physically out of the office to get our actual jobs done. And even that was prone to interuption. I think you missed something critical though, and that is the cost of context switching. There are lots of studies out there that show that a 1 minute interruption adds up to a LOT more than 60 seconds of lost productivity. That's why having your email constantly open or being available on IM are deadly. It's why I refuse to use Twitter. If it takes me 60 seconds to get back on track after a 15 second interruption, how could I handle that? I've found that if 2 people are IM'ing me at once, my ability to do work is effectively zero, even if it is not a constant back-and-forth; waiting for them to respond every 30 seconds is just as bad as immediate responses. J.Ja

arsm2
arsm2

It's true - multi-tasking does not work!

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

Two really good points you made .... 1. interrupt driven time management is really an ego thing. "It was a bit of an ego trip for me". 2. "Reserve time for self-improvement." The first (ego) is simply true and often the recognition of this is the first step to learning time management. As business people/entrepreneurs we need to learn this skill as one our early skills (not the first but very quickly). Very, very seldom does someone need an immediate response. And if you monitor your voice mail you can always respond quickly. The second (reserve time) is something that we as consultants need to learn and our clients need to accept. Some of us work on a single client project at a time, some of us work on multiple client projects. But we all need to work on our own company projects. That includes working on the company and working on ourselves (i.e. our skills). Without doing both we quickly fall into the trap of working in our business not on our business -- and we become simply small business owners and not entrepreneurs -- and shortly obsolete. If I was to suggest an improvement to the article, I would suggest only that the reserve time point needs to be made twice. Once for your skills and once for your business. (Now I need to get back to the latter for myself). Good summary. Glen Ford, PMP http://www.TrainingNOW.ca

ssharkins
ssharkins

Chip -- this is great advice. Thanks!

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

But I personally don't know any techies who remain productive in that kind of environment.

cmaritz
cmaritz

This is a fascinating subject. I can totally understand this mentality, that you're not important if you are easily available. And that being interrupted is a bad thing. However, in my limited experience I have encountered some cases that go somewhere counter to these notions. Just for flavour, let me throw these in: #1 At a company that I worked for previously, nobody, and that means nobody, got access to the MD unless it was by appointment with his secretary. Now of course there is nothing wrong with this, but some time later I visited another similar company (i.e. production environment, 300+ employees) where things worked quite differently ... ... there were NO secretaries! Seriously. I honestly could not believe this when I saw it, but it worked. If you wanted to speak with anyone, you phoned them directly, if they were not in the office, then you could call the reception who would then call them on the PA system to call you back! In this way the MD of this company was just as 'available' as the most junior staff member. What was also noticeable was the culture that went along with this system (without which, it would surely never work) - people didn't contact people for trivial stuff. If you wanted to speak to the MD, you phoned him because the matter really could not wait for an email, and because only he could help. He would respond in kind and call you back at your extention, right from the meeting he was busy attending, if that were the case! Saw it with my own eyes. Highly highly efficient, successful and agile company. #2 Another viewpoint of 'availability' is one with a bit of a Theory of Constraints and/or Systems Thinking philosophy thrown in. In a typical company, there is 'The Business', i.e. the core reason-for-being, i.e. the money-making engine that runs day to day, which is usually supported by various functions and departments which aid in the longer term viablity of that business. IT is usually one such supporting function, along with HR, Accounting, Marketing, etc. you know the list. Now this happens in my own workplace as well, where sometimes IT get interrupted frequently due to some issue in the business. There will be the standard moans and groans in IT that our work is getting disrupted and we can't get anything done, BUT if OUR work is disrupted, but as a result the business is NOT, then this is still a good state of affairs. It is very possible that IT departments (or any other service type departments) that try to optimise their OWN efficiency end up harming that of the business. Often after a person calls me several times regarding some matter, they apologise to me and say sorry for disturbing so many times. Sometimes (not always) I'll reply with "That's why we're here," if it was the case where, better that IT get interrupted more if it means that the business gets interrupted less. So there you go, some slightly counter-intuitive views on availability, straight from the textbook! :-) But seriously, there is certainly truth to it in practice. Yet another reminder of the need for some humility and a serving mind in IT, whose reason for being is usually to ensure the viability of something outside of themselves, i.e. The Business. Right, now, time for cup of coffee number ... 3! I'm slow today.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I'm reminded of a story -- I believe it was in Plutarch -- in which a Spartan leader went to visit the Persian king. After he was announced, the servant returned and informed the Spartan that the king could not see him, because he was drinking his beer. This was intended as an extreme insult -- but the Spartan (being used to plain speaking) merely shrugged and replied, "I'll wait for him to finish."

Justin James
Justin James

If you have a door, close it. That helps a bit, especially if you can "train" people that a closed door means "do not disturb" and an open door means "feel free to interrupt." Another thing that helps is to be mildly rude. Basically cut them off, and say, "is this an emergency that needs to be addressed right now, or can it wait until 3 PM when I am finished with this task?" Also, lay out the ground rules in that conversation: "I'm working 60 hours a week, and I really need to wrap this project up. I'll make you a deal: if you send me an email with non-emergency items, I will respond to it in a timely fashion. Maybe not immediately, I check email at specified times in the day, but I will respond as needed. Please call me with any emergencies, or walk into my office with them. Feel free to walk in if my door is open." If people still don't get the hint, I've found it necessary to escalate to DEFCON 1... change offices for a few days without telling anyone. This only works in bigger places, but sometimes, I've been known to grab an empty office in the middle of nowhere and set up shop. People know I'm still at work, I'm attending meetings, seen in the breakroom, etc. But I can now only be reached by pre-determined routes, thanks to shutting off cell phones, not logging into the desk phone, turning off IM, etc. When people ask "where are are?" you explain, "I can't get my work done because people kept interrupting me, in order to ensure that the project stays on track, I have had to take extreme measures to ensure an interruption free day." I did that for a few days at one job, and the next thing I knew, a number of other people were doing it too! It stinks that this is how things have to go sometimes, but if it is a choice between working ANOTHER 10 hours a week, or getting a few people annoyed with me... I'll opt to get my job done every time. J.Ja

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I mentioned context-switching in the article, but I didn't emphasize its cost in time, which is huge. Of course it depends on what you're working on when you get interrupted, but I have on occasion seen a 30-second question/answer result in a lost train of thought that required nearly an hour to reconstruct.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Yes, maintaining and improving the business is one very important area that's easy for us techies to ignore -- to our peril. Thanks!

WasabiMac
WasabiMac

People look at you like your crazy when you ignore your desk phone or switch your cell to quite while you're talking to them. I glance at the caller ID and if it isn't one of four people (my direct report, his boss, his boss or his boss) I ignore it. I call everyone back who leaves a message.* It is amazing how much more you can get done by simply focusing on the person you are with rather than the 20 who are pinging you. *Not calling people back who don't leave a message saves a lot of time as well. I had one co-worker who would get mad when I didn't call him back just because he was in my call log. I told him that if the problem was so critical he didn't have 30 seconds to leave a brief useful message, he should probably be calling 911 rather than me. The quality of my service as well as my relationships with my coworkers/clients has improved because they know I won't blow them off. A 10 minute face to face will be a solid 10 instead of the usual 3 three minute meetings with 2 to 5 minuet breaks in it while I help someone else.

keilana
keilana

For non-consulting types, a good reference is "Time Management for System Administrators" by Thomas A. Limoncelli. He talks about the idea of a "shield" person - to deflect walk ups and interruptions for service desk or system administration groups so they can work on tickets, projects, etc. We have implemented this idea in my company with some degree of success. I would recommend reading the book, just to pick up some ideas on ways to better manage your day.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I'm not the kind of guy who wants to be seen as unapproachable. In fact there's not much I enjoy more than being able to help my clients and colleagues. I think the key is to find a balance between availability and productivity, and if you don't do something to deflect interruptions, it goes way too far over to the side of availability. In your first scenario, it was paramount that no interruption be for a trivial matter. That's where most people mess up unless you draw the line.

dawuf
dawuf

Most of us sit in cubicles, kinda hard to avoid the walk-ins that way. The only way I have been able to deal with it was to talk my boss in letting me take one day a week to work from home. I wish I had more of these. Come to think about it, face time is really overrated and environmentally disasterous.

Justin James
Justin James

When I quit my 2 pack a day smoking habit, my productivity soared. Stepping away from the desk every 60 minutes for 5 - 15 minutes (the smoking area at many companies is also used as an ad-hoc meeting area) was destroying my ability to get mentally settled in an working. It also didn't help that when I was actually at my desk, my habit was so strong that I was totally fixated on the next cigarettte. Add on top of that a 2 pot a day coffee habit, which had me constantly refilling my cup or going to the bathroom, and it is amazing that I got anything done at all. Yesterday, I worked for 8 hours *straight* on the phone with Microsoft trying to fix some issues, the only time we were off the phone is when we accidentallygot disconnected. No way could that have happened 2 years ago! J.Ja

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Absolutely. Another reason why they should leave a message is so you can process the information before interrupting them with a callback.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

We can all afford to learn from others' experiences -- as long as we don't apply their recommendations blindly.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Back in the mid 80s when I was in an R&D department, we tested out DecTalk (an early speech synthesis device). We programmed it so any of us in the room could key in a short command at the prompt when a salesman entered. DecTalk would announce: "Danger! Danger! Saleman approaching! Hide all women and children!" After a few times, they started getting the hint.

Justin James
Justin James

I know what you mean about cubicles, they present their own problems. One person I knew bought an inexpensive curtain rod and a not-hideous curtain to hang over the entrance of his cube. That seemed to work, but depending on your environment, that may be a bit "over the top". One thing I've done in the past is to re-arrange the furniture in my cube to make it very visitor un-friendly. It sends a subtle, subconcious hint to people when there is no place for them to sit or even lean up against a wall. J.Ja

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Get nasty. People will listen if you make it clear how important it is to you. And talk it up to your boss: "If you want me to be productive, support me in eliminating interruptions." Of course, if your boss is the worst offender then you might be in a no-win.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I've never smoked, but back when I drank about 20 cups a day I wore a path between the coffee pot, the restroom, and my desk. I'm down to about three cups a day now and I'm able to stay seated at my monitors for much longer periods. ;) They say that a programmer is a device for converting caffeine into code, but most of it becomes waste, it seems to me. How much of that waste is in the form of urine or bad code is up to the individual developer.