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AMERICAN CITY BUSINESS JOURNALS – How to Tame Office Interruptions


Edward Brown is on a mission to help legions of workers regain up to 60 percent productive work time he says the average professional loses every day to a pervasive workplace malaise he calls the “interruption culture.”

Brown is author of The Time Bandit Solution: Recovering Stolen Time You Never Knew You Had” and cofounder of the culture and change-management firm Cohen Brown Management Group.

“The interruption culture accelerated with the Internet, social media, and the smartphone,” Brown said. “Average cell phone users check their phones between 150 to 200 times per day. Between text messages, checking status on Facebook, Linkedin and Twitter, people lose enormous amounts of time with these interruptions and any momentum they have in productively accomplishing important work tasks.”

Brown said the economic downturn in 2008, staff reductions, hiring freezes, and the “do-less-with-more” mantra at large and small employers alike makes productive work time all the more precious a commodity. He also cited open-architecture office design as a contributor to frequent interruptions, lack of privacy, and a hindrance to focused, uninterrupted work.

“I acknowledge advocates champion the benefits of increased collaboration and sociability of open-office design,” said Brown, “The downside is the cumulative effect of ‘Got-a-minute?’ interruptions can have negative impact on results. People are losing up to three to five hours a day. This is time they can’t afford to give up.”

The cost of lost time is alarming

Brown said research in the financial services industry shows interruptions can take up to 238 minutes a day.

“Then you have to restart,” he said. “That’s the loss of another 84 minutes. That leads to inefficiencies like momentum loss, do-overs because of errors. Stress and fatigue cost another 50 minutes. That’s 372 minutes, or 6.2 hours every day, or 31 hours a week — almost a whole person — in productive time lost.”

Brown cites “The big five” approach to remedying the time bandits in your work place. Briefly these are:

1. Calculate the cost

Awareness is the key driver behind acknowledging that the problem exists. When management and front line employees track, determine and then quantify the amount of time lost to interruptions, the motivation to act becomes apparent. Brown uses a simple questionnaire with his clients and offers more input on calculating costs at his website.

2. Enlist the support of “time bandits”

You cannot do this alone. You must approach the time bandits in your work life (you may actually be one). Ask if, like you, they are finding there is less time in the work day to do more. Would they welcome dedicated time in each work day where critical work was uninterrupted? Brown suggests using humor in this approach to best disarm the “bandits” who invariably acknowledge suffering the same plight.

3. Establish time locks

Locking up critical, uninterrupted time each day where you can “just say no” to interruptions is the key in taking back your lost time. Communicating this with your coworkers and respecting their time locks puts the office on a path of increased productivity. Recognize your productive times may be early mornings and your colleagues’ best times may differ from yours. Establishing social time for coffee, collaboration, meetings etc. will ensure the office remains collegial, social and no one misses out on any of the fun times at work.

4. Management buy-in

Organization leaders will embrace these changes as they realize the productivity savings and increased work output. They need to understand where their team’s time locks are and support them.

5. Be mindful

By focusing on the present you are controlling your time and your business,” said Brown. “Don’t let time control your life.”