Handling Distractions In The Distracted Workplace

A recent article by essayist and venture capitalist Paul Graham has gained a lot of notice, and not just because Graham is a partner in startup boot-camp Y-Combinator. Graham’s piece describes what looks to be a fundamental difference in the work rhythms of two different sorts of people: managers and makers.

Here’s how he puts it:

There are two types of schedule, which I’ll call the manager’s schedule and the maker’s schedule. The manager’s schedule is for bosses. It’s embodied in the traditional appointment book, with each day cut into one hour intervals. You can block off several hours for a single task if you need to, but by default you change what you’re doing every hour. . . .

But there’s another way of using time that’s common among people who make things, like programmers and writers. They generally prefer to use time in units of half a day at least. You can’t write or program well in units of an hour. That’s barely enough time to get started.

This is one reason that “makers” dislike meetings so much: one meeting doesn’t just take an hour out of their day. It ruins a whole half-day.

It’s a really great essay, and very helpful. Judging by the Twitter buzz it got, this piece struck a nerve. And no wonder: it combines three very powerful things — hatred of meetings, dislike of bosses, and a positive self-image as a “maker” of things.

Blindfolded Typing Competition by Flickr user Foxtongue
"Blindfolded Typing Competition" by Flickr user Foxtongue

Who doesn’t want to see themselves as a “maker,” put upon by distractions and needless interruptions from idiotic “managers?” I work on my own and I feel that way all the time! When I am heavy into a writing project, the half-day schedule is exactly right. I can “do” something in the morning, and something in the afternoon. Plunk a meeting into the middle of one of those chunks of time and it’s blown.

But there are a few holes here.

To be fair, Graham did not write his piece to dump on managers. He’s a manager too! He was trying to explain one point of friction, when scheduling rhythms collide.  He also does not claim that he’s written the be-all and end-all of workplace tools. So I’m not criticizing him.

But there are a couple of points that I think we need to think about:

  • Managers hate meetings just as much as anyone else; and
  • Even for “makers” the average duration of any given task is far shorter than the time allotted for it.

We’re not going to get rid of meetings, and we’re not realistically going to be able to schedule them all for the end of the day. We live in a world where distraction is the norm. This affects both managers and makers — and while we can minimize it, we can’t force it away.

So I think the key is to control how we respond to distractions. Especially, as individual workers we need to get a handle on our ability to get into and then get out of tasks. Sometimes we have the luxury of unplugging for a day to work on something. Mostly, we don’t and we have to answer that phone, have that conversation, run that errand even though we’re coding a new app or writing that new report.

So we need to get a handle on how we respond to interruptions and distractions. We need to handle our transitions.

This is especially true of makers, but it’s also true of managers — they get interrupted too.

Here’s some things I have learned in trying to handle interruptions. They aren’t the best techniques, or the only ones, and some of them may not work for you. Not only that — some of them don’t even work for me all the time! I am always trying to improve. But at least they’re a start.

  • Quicken my rhythm. Rather than fret about “my afternoon getting blown,” I try to work in smaller chunks of time so that I can more easily respond to things that come up. Sometimes I’ll even start a timer and say “I am giving this task thirty minutes only.” You’d be surprised how much you can write in thirty minutes.
  • Multitask on purpose. Rather than unplug when I need to concentrate, I will sometimes try to just let my Twitter, Facebook, and email streams continue to flow, responding here and there as necessary and as the spirit moves me. I have a fairly large stream, too, and it can work. The benefit of this is that I don’t dread opening up Gmail when I’m done writing. I can use these interactions as mini-breaks too.
  • Tier my work. Sometimes, I really do have to unplug in order to concentrate. But over time I have figured out when those times are. Just because I am “writing” does not mean I need to unplug. Some writing can be done while still plugged in. Research, boilerplate creation, some editing — that can be done without solitude. Writing new pieces, or taking care with first drafts — sure, I unplug.
  • Make an appointment. If I really must buckle down and get something done, I’ll often put that work on my calendar. That can help me make sure it happens, and it can also give me a way to handle my next point:
  • Quicken meeting tempo. I have written before about shortening the default meeting time. Sometimes I meet with people whose default meeting duration is far longer than mine, though. One way around that is to announce at the beginning of the meeting how long I have and when I have to go.
  • Prepare to re-enter. If I have to stop working on something, I try to make sure I have written down what I need to do to get back into it. That way when the distraction is over, I can get started on my task more quickly.

What tips and tricks do you have to manage distractions in the distracted workplace?

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