Call it the time sucker. The e-mail ping, the messy desk that needs to be tidied, or the wet blanket of a co-worker who accosts you every morning to kvetch about her boss.
These interruptions pull us out of the flow and waste our valuable energy and time. So, when facing a time crunch, what do we do? Everything at once. That means checking e-mail under the table at an important (and yet oh-so-boring) meeting. Ping-ponging between two client files. Multitasking.
There it is. The M word.
You'd have to be hiding out with your BlackBerry under a rock not to know that multitasking on the job has fallen seriously out of favour. Not only is there a growing body of research that tells us that multitasking doesn't actually exist (our brains aren't built to work on two conflicting tasks at once) but that it slows us down, even makes us stupid.
According to the Harvard Business Review, multitasking leads to as much as a 40-per-cent drop in productivity, increased stress and even a 10-per-cent drop in IQ. In another study from Bassex, an IT research and consulting firm in New York, researchers found that electronic technology – cellphones, e-mails and instant messages – slash productivity by as much as two hours each day.
Losing focus at work is a big problem that can snowball and affect home life, too, says Camille Preston, author of Rewired: How to Work Smarter, Live Better, and Be Purposefully Productive in an Overwired World, who lives in Cambridge, Mass.
"People are not as present with their children because they're spending their time doing catch-up work that they didn't do before because they were multitasking and being interrupted in the workplace," she says.
So what's the secret to avoiding interruptions and staying on task through the day? Here are a few ideas:
"Have you ever had too many programs open on your computer at the same time? It slows down. It's the same with your brain," Ms. Preston says. The trick is to track yourself to find out when mind fatigue starts to hit you – and plan around it.
For most people, that means they get their best work done in the morning when their brains are still fresh and haven't become overloaded. If that sounds like you, plan to work on the most important tasks first thing instead of wading through e-mail or returning phone calls. That stuff can almost always wait 30 more minutes.
Send an e-mail
If you seem to be everybody's go-to person, it's time to give away some of that power. When co-workers constantly come to you to ask questions about things they've already been trained on, not only does it interrupt you, but becomes exasperating, too.
So if an issue comes up again and again, send colleagues an e-mail outlining exactly how to tackle the problem on their own and urge them to file and flag the e-mail so they can find it easily later.
Clear your desk in the middle of the day
That's what Jennifer Maguire Coughlin, a New York public relations firm owner, does each day. "I focus completely on taking a few quick items out of my inbox and off my desk. It doesn't take that long and this physical and mental cleaning works wonders for my to-do list," she says.
Go old school
Despite all the fancy technology out there intended to make our days run smoother, sometimes it makes sense to go back to good old paper and pens or a blackboard like Paul Tobey, who runs a business-training firm in Toronto. He uses a simple black art board and separates it into four columns: big goals, tasks, in progress, and complete. "It is visual and highly motivating as you see each task move across the board," he says.
Write it down
Forget keeping a traditional journal (although many people swear by it). One of the best ways to stay on track is to keep a piece of paper on your desk so you can jot down things that pop into your brain, says Ms. Preston. If you're working on a paper and think, "I have to pick up milk on the way home," write down "milk." That way your brain won't keep subconsciously fixating on the idea and you can get back to work.
Step away from the desk
At V3 Media Group in Opelika, Ala., desk-bound employees break up their days by taking two breaks together. "There's no set time. It is mandated by whoever gets restless first," says Chris Call, an intern there. They've been known to go and explore the building together, or even have arm wrestling competitions between employees and their bosses. Whatever it takes to make the break oddly fun.
Just be you
Not everybody is snubbing multitasking these days. George Favvas, co-founder and CEO of Rewardli, a small business Web service company in San Francisco, admits he's able to do it easier than most people. The Montreal native says his brain allows him to listen to two conversations at the same time and "play back the tape" later. Sitting with his team at lunch? He's talking to one person beside him, but hears another. When things are quiet later, he dredges up the memory, writes it down and acts on it, if needed.
For years, he had no idea this skill was on the strange side – until his wife told him after thinking he wasn't listening to what she was saying.
"Which is kind of true, but I can pause and then within five seconds, I play back the tape and repeat what she said verbatim. It drives her absolutely nuts," he says.