Once every few weeks, I like to spend the day working in bed.
I close the door, prop up my laptop on pillows, sit with my legs crossed, and get to work. I never used to admit this, since it comes across as lazy, but it serves one very important purpose: No one knows where I am. I turn off my phone and concentrate on whatever task I want to get done that day. These are often gloriously productive days with minimal interruptions.
Whether you work in a large corporation or a small company, we live in a culture dominated by endless distractions, both digital and physical. Maybe it's a colleague who likes to come by your office and ask for a minute of your time, or you are hard-wired to check your phone every time your Twitter notifications go off. We are so accustomed to distractions that a lack of them can be unnerving to the point where we create our own diversions.
Focusing, in a culture of distraction like ours, can be a challenge, and according to Edward Brown, author of The Time Bandit Solution, we can no longer blame technology for this blight.
"The Internet didn't invent the interruption culture any more than it invented gambling," he insisted. The real culprits, Mr. Brown said, are workplace trends, such as open-door policies that encourage those who consistently ask "Got a minute?" We don't know how to say no and accept these interruptions – even if it damages our work lives.
Time bandits, he warned, are likely your favourite people or those you are least likely to want to offend – your co-workers, customers, boss, friends and family. You need to politely explain to them that their needs matter to you and you look forward to engaging with them – but only when you can give them your full attention.
Mr. Brown cautions that this doesn't always work and sometimes a boss or customer needs urgent attention, but even a single hour a day reclaimed makes a difference in a busy person's life. Eventually, your contacts will learn and perhaps even develop better habits themselves.
Developing a strategy to manage interruptions – that is both friendly and effective – remains critical to regaining your time, since time really does cost money.
Mr. Brown said his clients often calculate that they lose three to five hours a day owing to unwanted, unproductive interruptions.
Even very small intrusions can have serious consequences. An interruption of 2.8 seconds can double your rate of error in a day, while a disruption of 4.4 seconds can triple your error rate, according to a 2013 article published in The Journal of Experimental Psychology. Even without errors, interruptions hurt the quality of our work, another study shows.
Mr. Brown, who co-founded the cultural change consulting firm Cohen Brown Management Group, offers several tips for conquering "time bandits" and regaining control over your productivity. To start, lock up some interruption-free periods, where no one can reach you except in an emergency. That means politely explaining to your staff or boss why you have taken this approach and how it is in their best interest to respect it. Once you have mastered that, learn to control your self-sabotaging interruptions, such as daydreaming or other diversions, which requires some practice.
Once you've managed to block out the interruptions, both external and internal, re-allocate the time more efficiently. Mr. Brown suggests dividing time into two categories: the "critical few" or the most important tasks, and then the "minor many," which is the rest.
Carve out your most focused time to complete your list of critical few tasks. For some, that may mean working from home. A new study by FlexJobs, a telecommuting jobs site, found that more than half of the 1,500 respondents said their home is a better place to undertake important job-related assignments. Only 19 per cent said they would rather go to the office during regular hours to get important work done.
The "minor many," which include repetitive or homogeneous tasks, should be done at the same time to save energy and create momentum.
Getting the upper hand on distractions won't be easy and Mr. Brown suggests that many of us may be addicted to interruptions. He said many professionals find it difficult to spend quiet time alone and can't resist checking their e-mail, the football score or a stock price.
So the next time you are asked if you "have a second," think twice and assess how that behaviour affects your work life over time. Alternatively, do what I do and, every few weeks, when crucial work needs your focus, find a good place to hide.
Leah Eichler is founder and CEO of r/ally, a mobile collaboration platform for enterprises. Twitter: @LeahEichler