Boost productivity by time blocking

Sep 18, 2022

Email is a great tool, but if it’s not managed efficiently, it can dominate our day and rob precious time from getting work done.

One day, I arrived for a coaching session with a project manager. The receptionist said the project manager was wrapping up a call and would be out soon. From my seat, I could see across the office to where my client was immersed in her call. As she hung up, she glanced at her computer screen and dove into, I assume, responding to an email. And then someone came up to her desk to ask her a question while she was typing. After 15 minutes of observing her, I decided to approach and remind her of our appointment. She literally jumped out of her chair. “Oh, my god, I forgot about you. I mean, I didn’t. I had our meeting in my calendar until a client called, and then I tried to answer somebody’s question. I got distracted!”

Sound familiar? Microsoft conducted a study and found that every interruption costs us about 15 minutes of productivity – whether we are being interrupted or we are breaking from a task. Part of that loss is due to the time it takes to recover and refocus. But they also found that it’s often a new distraction, in the form of an email, text, call, or someone wanting our attention, that pulls us away. Because time is finite, we often try to cram as much in as possible. We believe we can handle it by multitasking: thinking and doing many things at once.

What we commonly refer to as multitasking is better described as task-switching. The brain is not capable of intently focusing on two serious tasks at the same time, explains productivity psychologist Dr. Melissa Gratias. “Our brain does not perform tasks simultaneously. It performs them in sequence, one after another,” Dr. Gratias says. “So, when we are multitasking, we are switching back and forth between the things we are doing.” When we split our time and jump back and forth, we risk losing details and the power of our focus. We lose the thread of thinking that makes great design possible. At the end of the day, we end up with a pile of unfinished work that we need to revisit the next day and remember where we left off.

Working in blocks allows your mind to stay focused on similar activities so you can make the connections, follow the threads, catch the details, and find what some call the flow of work. When we choose to work in blocks of time, we gather up tasks that are connected so our attention and mindset are concentrated in one mode.

Kaylee, a project assistant at a civil engineering firm, felt bad bugging her manager each time she had a question. She began a practice of writing down her questions on a legal pad and then scheduling a convenient time with the manager to review all her questions in one block of time. There were several benefits to this approach: some questions became resolved as she did the work on her own; it gave her more time to think about the questions and come up with her own solutions; she found other ways and people who could provide answers; and when she did meet with her manager, it was more efficient because he was focused on addressing her questions rather than distracted and not present. Kaylee was being more intentional and conscious about her communication. She also made a positive impression on her supervisor, which only built more support for her as an emerging leader. It would have been easy and tempting for Kaylee to send an email to her supervisor each time a question occurred to her. Email has become part of our thought process. Get an idea, send an email. The problem is that sending, reading, and responding back to email creates a vicious loop. Inboxes get clogged, people get overwhelmed, things get dropped, messages get misinterpreted. Email is a great tool, but if it’s not managed efficiently, it can dominate our day and rob precious time from getting work done.

A study at the University of British Columbia tested the validity of time blocking for email by comparing two test groups. Participants in group A checked their email three times a day and then closed it down to focus on other work. Group B participants could check it whenever they wanted. What they found is that group A spent 20 percent less time working in email than group B. When we simply respond to emails as they arrive in our inbox, we don’t discriminate between those that require immediate attention and those that simply show up. When you wait to check email less often, you reduce the back-and-forth of emails. The time you spend not engaging and being distracted is time you claim for more important things. 

Leo MacLeod, founder of Training, Coaching, Pie, helps doers become leaders in the AEC industry from his home in Portland Oregon.

This article was an excerpt from the book From The Ground Up: Stories and Lessons from Architects and Engineers Who Learned to Be Leaders.

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