Fiona Smith Columnist

Fiona writes on workplace issues, including management, psychology, workplace design, human resources and recruitment. She is a former Work Space editor at The Australian Financial Review and has also covered property, technology, architecture and general news.

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Nine tips for when you are too busy to work

Published 30 October 2012 06:16, Updated 10 April 2013 07:40

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Nine tips for when you are too busy to work

While people often think they are good at multi-tasking, they are generally fooling themselves.

Peter starts his work day at 7am, settling into the hushed office before the phone starts ringing, the emails get pinging and people come by for a chat with a cup of steaming coffee in hand.

“That two hours a day is the only time I get any work done,” he moans.

Even at that hour, he is not the first in. The other early starters give him a salutation as he rushes by, keen to get as much done as possible before chaos sets in.

For many of us, work is something to squeeze in between hours of meetings and over-communication.

Effectiveness coach Cyril Peupion says up to half of people’s working day is wasted on distraction.

“You would be surprised how many high-level executives say one of the biggest issues they face is that they don’t get enough time to think or to work on a strategic project,” he says.

It now seems a luxury to do only one thing at a time. People try to juggle everything at once: work, emails, social media, SMS, phone calls and interruptions from colleagues.

White collar workers are interrupted every three minutes, according to research by the University of California.

“If you gather all of those together, we spend two to three hours a day on those little interruptions,” says Peupion, a director of Primary Asset Consulting and author of Work Smarter: Live Better.

“A lot of people have become serial multi-taskers. They butterfly from one thing to another.”

While people often think they are good at multi-tasking, they are generally fooling themselves. Just because you appear to be coping, it doesn’t mean that you are being effective.

“Even the brain of a Harvard graduate can be turned into the brain of an eight-year-old by being made to do two things at once”, he says, quoting neuro-leadership author, David Rock.

“[Multi-tasking] has an impact on the quality of what we are doing.” Even simple tasks take three times as long to complete if we are doing more than one thing at a time.

Because we are expected to always be contactable these days, we need strategies to ensure there are times we can work without distraction.

Peupion says one client, an executive at a bank, started working from home every wednesday and reported she was able to achieve three times as much on those days.

Another finance industry client, a team of 20 relationship managers and support staff, was assessed four months after finishing an effectiveness course with Peupion.

By decluttering their workspaces and lives, focusing on what is important and changing their work habits, the relationship managers improved their productivity by increasing their meetings with clients from 3½ times per week to 5½ times per week.

Those extra meetings generated an extra $500,000 to $1 million in revenue per year, the workers were less stressed and reported being able to spend more time with their families, says Peupion.

Peupion says he has some information to help people manage their work lives better on his website, and offers nine tactics to keep the world at bay when you need to concentrate.

  1. Book it. Block out some regular time to have a meeting with yourself.
  2. Block out. Wear headphones so people think you are on the phone and leave you alone.
  3. Shut it. If you have the luxury of an office, close the door and put up a sign saying when you will be available again.
  4. Signal. Agree on a sign that will indicate you need to be left alone. Maybe a flag on the desk.
  5. Escape. Book a meeting room or find a quiet space to hide and work.
  6. Turn off. Switch off your email notifications, silence your phone (and turn it face down), and close Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.
  7. Leave. Work from home one day a week.
  8. Coffee break. Take yourself to a cafe so you will be harder to track down.
  9. Note. If you have distracting thoughts, write them down and then forget them until your work is done.

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