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Don’t go to the office (and other ways to get work done)

Don’t go to the office if you need to get work done.

Where do you go when you need to get work done? Do you go to a coffee shop? Do you go early to work before others show up (or stay late after everyone’s gone)? Do you go to a library? The interesting thing, as Jason Fried (2010) points out, is that most people do not say they go to the office when they ‘really’ need to get work done.

Isn’t that ironic? Weren’t these offices built so that people get work done — yet employees invariably say when they really need to get work done they go somewhere else?

The reason?

One word: Interruptions.

When I was completing my masters degree, I committed to working a solid 50 hours per week. Mind you, I didn’t mean ‘just show up for 50 hours.’ No, it had to be 50 real hours of work. Full 50-hour study weeks went on for months, and I don’t think I’ve gotten so much work done than I did during those final graduation months.

But it left me asking this question: how in the world can I duplicate that kind of output if distractions riddle my life and attention only comes in 10 min shot glasses?

What does distraction in our work day cost us? This is the cost of interruption

In studies on the effects of workday distraction, it was found that:

  1. The average worker is interrupted/distracted every 10.5 minutes (how long do you get to work before your phone shouts for your attention?)

  2. It takes workers, on average, 23 minutes to get back on task (how long does it take you to get back on task?)

  3. Over 40% of tasks were not immediately resumed (do you even get back on task?)

  4. Significantly more stress when interrupted. A study used a NASA workload scale, which measures various dimensions of stress, and found that people scored significantly higher when interrupted. They had higher levels of stress, frustration, mental effort, feeling of time pressure and mental workload. (How does it feel when you’re trying to get something done, and someone keeps tapping your shoulder to ask a question or show you something?)

For me, one of the biggest pains is the stress. You want to enjoy your work, enjoy the feeling of accomplishment. But when interruptions spill all over your work environment, stress rises, and with it enjoyment erodes. Not cool. Who wants to live like that?

When we need to get quality work done, it’s usually one of two things: A place or a time. For me when I need to get something done, the place might be a big collaborative table at a coffee shop. Time wise I get great work done if I start early in the morning, or if I begin an early evening. But the key is that no one should have access to interrupt me — if that’s good, I’m good.

I would also add, when I really need to hold myself accountable to get quality work done, I’d write an online commitment contract, committing myself to do x number of hours on said task. And then I spend the week calculating the hours until I reach my goal.

What’s your place or time to get work done? Define it for yourself so that you know how to access it when needed.

How to avoid interruptions and stay focused? Try these:

  1. Put on a timer. I’ve been doing this since long ago when I was 12 and memorizing Quran; I would look up at the clock and give myself time limits to memorize a certain selection. Nowadays, I always have one of my browser tabs open to an online countdown timer. As I write this, I have a timer on right now.

  2. Shut off incoming notifications. When I need to get work done, I open up my laptop and put my smartphone on airplane mode (which shuts down incoming notifications). Need to get your work done on your smartphone? Try looking into its ‘do not disturb’ feature.

  3. Put on good headphones. Find something to listen to that soothes and motivates you to work — all while cancelling out the surrounding noise. Try peaceful rainforest soundtracks.

  4. Make a Post-it note list, right beside you. I like to have a notepad and pen right beside me, and I write what I need to get done. If my mind slips into the black hole of the Internet, clicking here and there, I snap out of it by looking at my list and remind myself of what I set out to focus on.

  5. What’s your 80/20? What’s the 20% action that, if you did it right now, would give you 80% of your result? I have a Post-it note beside me that constantly asks me this question — and the follow-up: Is this still true? Because your 80/20 2-hours ago may not still be valid now.

On the flip side, we all need positive distractions every 25 minutes or so to RECHARGE and SHARPEN our focus. As long as it doesn’t (a.) drag on and (b.) that the distraction is on the lower end of the work to distraction ratio, and (c.) so long as you can merge back onto the task highway at full speed.

Now your turn, where do YOU go when you need to get work done?

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