Carving out thinking time or processing critical high impact work

Bersin by Deloitte recently published an infographic titled “Meet the modern learner” (which is worth a quick look if you haven’t already seen it).

Some of the key points included:

  • Knowledge workers get interrupted by either technology or people every 5 minutes
  • People unlock their smartphones up to 9 times per hour
  • 66% of workers complain they don’t have enough time to do their jobs
While the focus of the Bersin article is learning where people feel overwhelmed, distracted and impatient – it’s not too much of a stretch to ask (when considering the same environment) how do people carve out thinking time or process their critical high impact work each day?

 Let’s go back

Back in 1989 in Stephen Covey’s book (7 Habits of Highly Effective People) Covey taught us to prioritise based on importance not just urgency (the 4 Quadrants) and work on our Big Rocks (some people also refer to these as Most Important Work or Must Do’s) before the lesser important work.  

Whether managers’ were using Covey’s techniques or not they tended to carve out thinking time or process their critical high impact work by sometimes shutting the office door (remember when every manager had an office). And while the level of face to face people interruptions might have been the same or let’s say even higher than they are now, there weren’t the technology communication interruptions ie. mobile phone, email instant messaging etc

What about today?

Over the past 20 years there have been major changes in how we work ie. open plan offices, substantial improvements in communication technology, activity based working, future way of working etc

While many people successfully apply the Covey principles today – the principles are more about what and when but not what, when and where (the space you sometimes need to be in to do the work).

By adding where, some of the successful techniques I see people using to carve out their thinking time or processing critical high impact work include:

  • Turning off communication devices (ie instant messaging, email alarms, mobile phone etc)
  • Having protocols in an open plan office (ie. a red flag at a workstation, headphones on or some form of indicator) which shows the person can only be interrupted for really important reasons
  • Work in an environment where it’s hard for people to interrupt you (ie. book a meeting room, work from home, work at a library for a few hours etc)
  • A culture of respect which communicates effectively without offending (ie. no not now)

There is always the option to do this work outside of normal business hours (either before or after work). However, this needs to be managed carefully otherwise there are many situations where what was intended to be rarely, actually becomes the norm and all that has been achieved is the employee is now working longer hours to get around the problem.

What techniques have you either tried or seen?