Interruptions: An Experiment

I’m really good at multi-tasking, if I do say so myself.

I’ve been known to brag about this “skill” to my family, friends, and anyone who will listen. My mom has been telling me for years that multi-tasking is actually not really that great from a production standpoint. She’s my mom which means I hear everything that she says, but don’t always follow her advice – until now.

My mom was right.

Multi-tasking Is All About Interruptions.

If you are like me, you have 42 applications, browser tabs, and stickies all running at once. You have IM flashing, Twitter beeping with new updates, your phone buzzing with calls and text messages, and your email inbox overflowing. You often read an article while replying to a tweet, answer an email while on a conference call, IM with friends/co-workers while writing a blog post. You get the picture.

I used to think I was being efficient. I used to think I was getting a lot of work done. I used to think that this was the only way to keep my head above water.

Here’s the rub. It doesn’t work. It doesn’t scale. It doesn’t help ship (Seth Godin-ism). What happens is that I’m giving 1/2 or 1/4 or 1/10 of my attention to one task. The problem is that sometimes less that 100% focus will suffice; however, most of the time, 50% or less doesn’t cut it. In order to really deliver a killer product (or answer, or service, or feedback), I need to dedicate close to 100% of my focus. If I’m in the middle of building a presentation and an IM pops up, it takes time to process – Do I reply right away? Ignore it? Even if I choose to ignore, it takes time. Time to read. Time to process. Time to decide how or if to respond. Time to re-focus on the original task. Same goes with all channels. They are all interruptions.

Interruptions.

Interruptions: An Experiment.

I’ve been contemplating this one for some time now. Part of the catch of living a life as a (good) multi-tasker is that sometimes you are so busy multi-tasking that you don’t take time to create or execute on an actual plan. There is always something or someone else demanding your attention. The thought of turning off all distractions to actually *create* that plan – well – it just feels odd. It goes against much of the always on, always available life I try to live.

Until now.

My plan is to focus on batching my time, my channels, my efforts. This is certainly a work in progress, an experiment of sorts. My first stab at “the plan” is as follows:

Email

I’m learning that it’s okay to not check email every second. In fact, it’s probably healthy. If you live in your inbox, reply to every email – often within minutes of receiving it – you are setting expectations that will ultimately be tough to fulfill. Also, not all emails are created equal – some are FYI and don’t require a reply. Some have 14 others copied and have no real call to action. Also, I have this terrible habit or replying to nearly every email. I’ve been in a bit more of a delete/archive mode lately, but it’s still and issue. One of the beauties of gmail is that the email lives on (via archive) indefinitely. I can usually find an old email fairly quickly, if needed.

My plan – Starting today I’ll be checking email in chunks, at set times during the day. Lauren Vargas told me about this months ago. I think she called it the Dr Pepper method (that’s the best link I could find). I heard her, but never actually implemented her suggestions. I’ll spend an hour or so in email 3x per day. The hours I’ll be there may vary, but for the most part I’m thinking about morning, lunch, and late afternoon. I’ll continue to reply to only those emails where I can add value. I’ll delete and archive often.

Twitter

This is the one that is killing me. Killing. I’m a huge advocate for the power of Twitter to discover new friends, create new relationships, foster/grow existing relationships, share personal and (valuable) business/industry information, build trust and credibility, and even find new business. However, it’s a huge interruptor. Huge. Every time I get the Tweetdeck notification, I stop, click, read and often get sucked down a rabbit hole.

My plan – Similar to email, I’ll take “Twitter breaks” where I’ll bounce in, look around, listen, learn, engage, connect, post, and jump back out. The time I spend there will be more strategic – still authentic, but more focused.

IM

My fellow Blue Sky Factory co-worker, Chris Penn, has this one nailed. He leaves IM up most of the day but is very diligent about updating his “away” message. He even has an auto-reply IM that sets proper expectations. It reads – “BSFDND: Please email and do not IM unless you are a BSF employee. Thanks!”

My plan – Set up something similar to Chris. Also, I’ll remind folks that if it’s not something urgent, email will be best. I’ll also selectively turn IM off during the day. Let’s see how that one works.

Skype

For the most part, I only fire up Skype if I am expecting a call or if someone IMs me and requests to take the conversation to Skype. This one has not been a huge interrupter for me unless I have it on and forget.

My plan – Continue business as is. This one is working! Simple.

Text and Phone

Part of my job requires me to answer phone calls. The time suck for me is that I’m a talker. I love chatting. Also, like email, I have this compulsive nature of answering every single text and nearly always answering the phone (unless I’m changing a diaper or in the middle of a conversation with someone else).

My plan – Let the FYI-only texts go unanswered and some calls go to VM. If it’s mission critical, they’ll leave a VM, right?

Facebook, LinkedIn, Forums

As Director of Community at Blue Sky Factory, maintaining, growing, and participating in social media channels is an important part of my day. However, they can’t take up my entire day. I think I do a pretty good job at bouncing in and out of places like Facebook (updating wall, replying to comments), LinkedIn (answering questions), and forums (replying to threads). The issue is that I jump in and out randomly.

My plan – Create dedicated time to spend in each channel. I don’t think it will take more than about an hour or so per day. If I can focus, I believe my answers will be more thought out and valuable.

Blogs & Articles

As a guy who speaks to clients, prospects, fans and marketers in general all day long about email marketing and social media, it’s imperative that I’m up-to-date on the latest and greatest. That being said, most of the information is not important right now. Blog posts and articles will be there in an hour, later in the day, tomorrow, next week, etc. The reason I sometimes have upwards of 38 Google Chrome (or Firefox) tabs open at once is I want to read it all.

My plan – Take “reading breaks.” During these set times (possibly first thing in the morning, over coffee), I’ll consume blog posts and article and comment as necessary and appropriate. I will pick a handful to share, similar to Chris Penn’s #the5 and move on. New posts and articles that come in during my non-reading hours will wait until the next break. Also, I’m going to try hard to not read it all. Some days, “delete all” will have to suffice.

Offline

This is an area I’ve struggled with for years. Turning it off. Shutting down. Focusing on life outside of the interwebs. It’s become a bit easier since the arrival of Eva, but I still am not great. Family time is critical. Time away from the keyboard and technology is healthy. Part of my refocus is going to include the offline. I need to spend more off-work time with my wife and baby girl.

My plan – I’m often the parent who picks Eva up from daycare in the late afternoon. Once I pick her up, I’ll be offline until the following morning. Similar concept on the weekends. With proper implementation of the above, folks will call or text me if there is an urgent matter. This is going to be the toughest one for me to sustain, but likely the most critical. Family is #1. Bottom line.

Are You Crazy?

So. I know what you are thinking. “DJ! You are such an idealist. There is no way you can actually do this consistently.” My first answer is, “You are right!” I am an idealist. I always have been. I’m becoming a bit more of a realist as I enter the second half of my 30s, but I’m still an idealist. I realize that I may not be able to follow all of these “rules” 100% of the time, but I believe if you don’t set some goals up, write them down, and attempt to stick with them you’ll never have a chance. I’m giving myself a chance in this “Interruption Experiment.”

Who is brave enough to join me on this journey?

DJ Waldow
@djwaldow

14 comments
Karen Talavera
Karen Talavera

I've often wondered, besides "doing" social media and blogging, do you have to get other work done? (Serious here :)) And if so, how and when do you manage to?

Sue Anne Reed
Sue Anne Reed

As I get ready to start my new job on Tuesday, I've been looking at how to be more productive. I like some of these ideas.

I'll be interested to see how you deal with being offline in the evenings / weekends and whether you find it changes how people perceive your authenticity.

Matthew Glidden
Matthew Glidden

Good luck with the undertaking! Have you pictured what the upsides are for you? Better household harmony? Faster response time from Mozilla without all those tabs open at once? :-)

JasonPeck
JasonPeck

I think this is a great idea. I used to have more of a set schedule to check rss feeds, tweets, email, etc. Unfortunately, depending on the week/what's going on, it's hard for me to stick to a set schedule. However, on days where I don't have a lot of calls/testing stuff/travel/urgent things, I think it would be a good idea for me to get back to a schedule such as what you're planning on. Looking forward to hearing how it works out for you!

Matt Cheuvront
Matt Cheuvront

I'm in! Especially when it comes to e-mails. You are spot on about setting expectations that become nearly impossible to fulfill. If you're answering e-mails at 10pm, waking up and spouting out e-mails at the crack of dawn, people will come to expect you to be available all hours of the day, and will get upset when they don't get a response from you based on those expectations.

I've been good about backing off of Twitter and Social Media while working, but e-mail is an absolute killer. Here's to both of us (and everyone else) re-focusing, cutting out the excess, and doing work that matters