How To Start Mono-Tasking

The other day, we posted another article on Facebook pointing out the science that says human beings are horrible at multi-tasking (Yes, even you people who think you’re good at it. Seriously, they have specifically studied people who claim to be good at it and disproved their confidence.). We got a really good question on that echoes sentiment we hear from people working in a wide variety of industries. Emma said:

Unfortunately at my place of employment, multitasking is really a requirement - there are so many multiple changing priorities, broken environments etc... Also were does interacting with co-workers fit in? - what I would call collaborating is often view as an interruption but when you have a joint project, no one can just focus on their own work.

Many of our approaches to the problem of interruption focus at the level of groups, whether that group is a small working group or an entire organization. But, often, an individual is in a situation where they’re not in a position to set any sort of policy or influence the group in any way other than serving as an example.

In those cases, there are still steps you can take to improve things.

The foothold I’m going to give you as your starting point is the fact that, in the combined 40 years Dave and I have been consulting with companies, even in the worst companies, meetings were treated in a very specific (though not healthy) way: people RARELY interrupt them.

Seriously, in all of those years, we can only think of a handful of times where, as people sat in a meeting room, someone came in from the outside, because of an emergency, and pulled one or more people out of the room to deal with it. Your organization might be the exception (especially if you’re in the emergency business: hospital, fire dept, police, etc), but we’ve worked in a LOT of companies and haven’t seen it very often.

The same is true for going out and finding someone from lunch to drag them back to the office. Just doesn’t happen very often.

What that demonstrates is that an emergency that can’t wait an hour is rarer than people want to admit out loud. So, I suggest putting that to work to reduce interruption around you.

Every day, before you leave the office, mark off one hour on tomorrow’s calendar, as early in the day as you can to work on the most important thing on your TODO list. If that involves collaborating with other people, add them to this “Working Session” meeting as attendees (though I’d do this earlier the previous day in that case). Schedule a room for it, if conference room space isn’t at a premium. Otherwise, work at your desk.

If anyone calls, let it go to voicemail. You don’t answer every call that comes in during a meeting, right? You’re in one now. Turn off all notifications on your computer and phone. The only exceptions should be, as I often to say, for emergencies involving blood or fire. Most phones now let you create a small list of people who can still ring through, but even for them you can require multiple calls. In real emergencies, people call back right after getting voicemail.

If someone comes into your space while you’re in this 1 hour block, your response is, “Can this wait until…?” and mention the end time of your “meeting”. A quick, “Can this wait until 2:00? I’ll be done with this then and can come find you/call you/etc.” works remarkably well.

That will get you an hour every day of reduced interruption as well as enhancing collaboration if the task requires it. It also establishes a few conventions that work in your favor for future adjustments.

First, it teaches people that checking your calendar is a good thing to do to avoid wasting time stopping by, and that you’re being proactive in seeking collaboration by not interrupting others to ask for their help.

Second, it starts establishing a pattern that, when interrupted, your immediate reaction is going to be to ask if it can wait. As we’ve already mentioned, nearly every office culture out there already operates on the idea that almost every interruption can wait an hour. If an hour IS too long, ask if it can wait 15 minutes or 5 minutes. After all, if you had been just getting up to go to the bathroom, 5 minutes wouldn’t be too much.

Over time, knowing that you aren’t someone who drops everything immediately steers people to seek your assistance in less interruptive ways. You’ll probably find you get far more email/chat/messages asking you to stop by or call “when you get a chance”. If you do the same in return, you’ll start to see interruptions drop.

One of the objections we hear often in the early stages of describing what we do at 7 Interruptions is the question of collaboration. When we describe cutting down on interruption, people often assume that we’re proposing an isolating workplace where everyone takes a monastic vow of silence.

That’s telling to us, though, because it means they work in an environment where collaboration is only initiated through interruption. But, doing so is an implicit statement that what I am working on is more important, RIGHT NOW than what the person I’m interrupting is working on.

In the absence of a system that lets me know what they’re working on (and we push organizations to set exactly those kinds of systems up), I can’t possibly know that. That mismatch grows as the number of people I’m roping into working with me increases.

A quick note asking everyone I need to collaborate with if they can meet me in the conference room in a half-hour often allows all of the other people involved to bring their current task to a close. If not, it allows them to still check in with you when they “come up for air” and you can check priorities to see if what you need help IS more important than what they’re working on.

That slight change, makes collaboration itself less interruptive, both to those you’re collaborating with and to those around you (assuming an open plan office space) because you deliberately take the collaboration to a conference room or similar space.

But, beyond that, reducing common sources of unneeded interruption, like requests for work status updates and replacing them with proactive status updates that you make visible as you work, you may find you can have MORE time available for collaboration.

When you reduce the time that wasteful interruption consumes, you provide more time for your deliberate work. That can mean heads-down concentration or group collaboration and decision-making. It’s a small shift, but changing from a “now” focus to even just “15 minutes from now” can dramatically reduce interruption.

One last thing is that the science says that when we do anything but the simplest of tasks (walking and chewing gum) together, the time to accomplish both things expands. It takes longer to do things when we rapidly task-switch. Period.

Even if you have a list of super-urgent items that are all “#1 priority”, putting them into any sort of order and doing them in sequence WILL get them done more quickly. To whatever degree you can do so, using our “can it wait X minutes?” question to postpone anyone pushing for any item other than what we’re working on, you will absolutely get more done. Even if it doesn’t intuitively feel that way.

If you have a question about reducing interruption at work, send it to