Not too long ago, our office hosted a two-hour productivity seminar at 9:30 in the morning; attendance was mandatory. The irony of dropping every pressing request and blocking time off during peak hours amused me to no end. The lure of refreshments and a chance to spend the morning away from my desk aside, I was curious to see what the presenters had in store if their website offered allegedly helpful advice such as how to scale back meetings and tips on home organization. Then there was this: take control of interruptions to your workday. I was sold!
We all deal with a constant stream of interruptions during the day, that’s not news. Studies indicate that it takes a full 20 minutes to refocus your attention on the task at hand when you get interrupted. I think the further in the zone you are, the worse it is. One thing I learned early in my professional life is that you cannot please everyone all of the time and while it is important to be helpful and nice to coworkers they can suck the life and will out of you before lunch.
My role is mostly an online one and I like to keep a tidy desk that does not have papers scattered in sloping piles right across. Lately, I have taken to fanning a few pages about just for the optics of it. Sitting quietly in front of my machine is not to be taken as an invitation to discuss what someone just read on Twitter, or recap last night’s episode of “Game of Thrones” (shut up, no spoilers, please … I’m a whole season behind!) Pre-seminar, I might have poked my head out looking like thunder and hissed at them to shut up. Post-seminar, I ask myself what can I do to change the things that are bothering me. I can stream the morning news and listen with earbuds; I can stuff noise-reducing earplugs in and focus on my breathing and my spreadsheet. Or …! I pick up the phone and loudly return a few calls. Only then, if I still have to, will I poke my head out looking like thunder and hiss at them to shut up.
My favourite takeaway from the productivity seminar was actually being told to turn off my email notifications in order to focus and remain productive. You could feel the tension ripple through the room: what a radical idea! Who invited these hacks? Are they going off-script?! The nerve of them, are they trying to get me fired? Is this a test? … okay, so I’m projecting just a teensy bit. Still, I loved the novelty of it. Nothing infuriates me more than to get one pop-up notification/ping/buzz after another and see a stream of unread mail in my inbox, only to then open them and read two little words: Thank you. Seriously? You have nothing else of value to add, no promise to deliver data, follow-up, regroup in a week, nothing?
I turned off my inbox notifications as soon as I got back from the seminar and never turned it back on. No FOMO, no regret, don’t miss the “you’ve got mail” dopamine rush. I can block a half hour or so a couple of times a day, file away the non-action items, add to-do flags to the ones that I need to follow-up on, use the “meeting” button on my toolbar to add the super-important stuff to my own calendar, cross off the completed tasks with a sense that something was actually achieved. No prizes for guessing what I do with the “thanks” messages.
People, though, get very anxious and miss the dopamine. That’s when the calls and drop-ins start: “Hi, did you read my email? You never responded to my email. Can we talk about my email now?” Um, no. Here’s what I learned to say, without guilt, insinuation or aggravation. I say it calmly, softly and with deep gravitas: “I am in the middle of something else right now, I will have to get back to you/come see you as soon as I am done with this. Let’s put it on the calendar”. Try it, it’s like a flu shot for your mental health.
Here’s how I see it: the big stuff doesn’t just happen in an instant. There is usually a long sequence of events, plenty of correspondence back and forth between client and vendor and all parties that matter, conference calls and GoTo meetings, planning, planning, and planning. Then one hapless unfortunate comes in, in the middle of the movie, fails to grasp the plot, asks the wrong questions (and thanks every last person for every last bit of it); still fails to understand the purpose or goal of what everyone else has been going on about. Then one day, say around 10:00 a.m., she decides to come sweeping down from one of the practice floors with her stack of invoices, mismatched payments and inch-thick, binder-clipped stack of emails, and asks, did you read my email?