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A technology professional's day usually consists of three types of work:
- Proactive, routine processes (e.g. daily backup checks, monthly reports)
- Reactive support tasks (e.g. responding to tech support calls, alarms)
- Innovation and improvements (e.g. developing new systems, upgrades)
Different technology roles will spend different portions of their day on those tasks. A help desk worker will spend more time reacting to support requests. A tier 2/3 sysadmin will tend to have extra responsibilities to innovate and improve systems.
Striking the right balance is a challenge in overworked, understaffed teams. There is a natural tendency to deal with the problems that look like fires. Work is a never-ending stream of “urgent” requests. But that leaves no time for innovation and improvements. We have to make time for it.
I say “make” time, because time is not something that we “find”. There isn't a bunch of spare time hidden away somewhere that you can find. You have to remove other things from your day to make time for the work that is most important.
The biggest obstacle is that we work in environments of frequent interruption.
The Cost of Interruptions
Reactive support work is immune to interruption. The urgency of reactive work allows us to say no to interruptions that are less important. If something more important does come up, we can return to a problem and refocus fast.
Proactive, routine process work is also immune to interruption. It is simple to return to a routine process and pick up at the step you were last working on.
Innovation and improvement work is different. This work requires extended periods of deep concentration. But sitting and thinking about a challenging question can look and feel unproductive. This makes deep work especially prone to interruption. The co-worker who sees you sitting still will assume you're not busy, and will interrupt you with a question. The manager who measures output through perceived effort instead of actual results, will assume you need more work to do.
Many studies have measured the impact that interruption has on productivity. The accepted wisdom is that interruptions don't only consume time for the duration of the interruption itself. They can impact your mental progress for up to half an hour afterwards. When a 5-minute chat becomes a 35-minute loss of productivity, you can see the problem.
As time passes and interruptions continue, the problem spreads even further. Work piles up. Stress levels rise. Our moods and general well-being deteriorate. Productivity declines as we start to resent the interruptions that keep us from making real progress. Burnout is a common outcome of this type of work environment.
The Importance of Deep Work
In his best selling book, Cal Newport describes deep work as:
Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.
Cal describes the challenge that professionals face in staying relevant in the modern era of fast moving technology.
We have an information economy that’s dependent on complex systems that change rapidly… To remain valuable in our economy, therefore, you must master the art of quickly learning complicated things.
When was the last time you were able to quickly learn a complicated new technology while being constantly interrupted? I would bet not recently. But it's important to keep learning, or you risk becoming a commodity worker in an industry that places little value on such skills.
Cal goes on to describe the two core abilities for thriving in the new economy.
The ability to quickly master hard things. The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.
It's not enough to learn new skills. You also need to create value. Value is not created through repetitive, process-drive, reactive work. Value comes from innovation and improvement, the type of work most vulnerable to interruptions.
To produce at your peak level you need to work for extended periods with full concentration on a single task free from distraction. Put another way, the type of work that optimizes your performance is deep work.
Making Space for Deep Work
We know that constant interruptions reduce our ability to perform deep work. We need to make time in our day for extended periods of focus and concentration.
The way most people deal with this is by working longer hours. When everyone else has gone home, there's finally peace and quiet to work on a challenging problem. Or they work from home in the evenings and on weekends.
I've done this myself, to varying degrees of success. A few nights or a weekend spent bashing out a problem that saves me an hour a day is worthwhile. But spending every night and weekend doing work is neither worthwhile or healthy.
To make space for deep work, in a healthy and sustainable way, we need to remove distraction and interruption.
On a personal level, the solutions are well known. Cut down on social media, close your email, turn off smartphone notifications.
In a professional setting, it gets trickier. How do you turn off interruptions yet still do your job? How do you dedicate blocks of time to deep work when anyone can walk up to you with a question or a 5-minute chat?
The good news is, it's possible. But it takes a combination of the right elements:
- Removal of interruptions to allow extended periods of focussed work.
- Investment in streamlining and automation to reclaim time from inefficient processes.
- A team and workplace culture that recognizes the value and supports change.
The following stories come from conversations with people during research for my book, and over the years that I've worked in the IT industry. The names and a few details are changed for anonymity.
Application Development Team
Kate led a team of four software developers. The team worked on internal business applications. Their customers regularly needed them for meetings to discuss problems or new work.
The random timing and duration of the meetings meant that the team were rarely together in their workspace to collaborate. Each developer was also having their schedule dictated by customer demands.
Productivity was suffering, and a backlog of work was starting to pile up.
Kate spoke to her team, and then went to her manager with a proposal.
I proposed that the entire team block out the same hours of the day for focused work. No interruptions, no meetings, just pure productive time. We would still be available for meetings and discussions in the morning, but this would allow us to make progress on the more complex work that was piling up in our queue.
Her manager agreed to try it for three months.
Kate's next step was to speak to their customers. She let each of the project managers and business analysts know that her team was available for morning meetings. They each blocked out their calendars from midday until 6pm.
Kate and one of the team members would be available for critical incidents only. The rest of the team would turn off their notifications, close their email, and focus on their work. They all owned headphones, so unless they were working together on something they would put on some music and get into the zone.
It took a couple of months for the new approach to settle in. Phone calls and emails were no longer interrupting them, but walk-ins were. In the second week Kate set up a sign outside their cubicle area politely asking people to not interrupt them during those hours.
After the first three months, Kate said that the scheduled focus time was helping to shrink the backlog. Most of their customers got used to booking morning meetings, and waiting longer for email replies.
My team have noticed that instead of getting interrupted for every single question or request, they now get invited to a meeting to discuss several things at once. It's allowing them to give better advice, and projects are moving through planning stages faster now.
But a few project managers felt that their interruptions were important enough to ignore the new schedule. They weren't, but there was no changing their minds. Although Kate's manager supported the new schedule, he wasn't willing to go to war over it. Kate's team found themselves making exceptions to their focus hours for a few of the most demanding customers.
Overall, they are happy that their backlog is shrinking, and their output quality is improving, even if they didn't get the perfect outcome.
Help Desk Team
Michael ran a help desk team of eight staff. The workload was consistent, and always just that little bit too much for the team to handle without rushing and cutting some corners. Often they'd miss their targets on some work requests, such as creating new user accounts. They had no time at all to do proactive improvement work like documentation or asset management.
Michael knew they could do better with more efficient processes. He identified three routine processes that could be streamlined.
- New accounts – the team were creating new accounts manually, with about 10-20 new accounts needed each week. A scripted process would save about 15 minutes per account creation, which could save up to 5 hours per week.
- Weekly reports – a report pulled from several data sources was taking several hours to manually compile. An automated process would return that time to Michael for other tasks.
- Booking of loan laptops – the current process involved emailing a request to the help desk. Michael's team then manually updated a booking register to keep track of the laptops that were available. It was cumbersome and time-consuming.
To solve the new account process, Michael got approval to hire a short term contractor to come on-site and write the necessary scripts. Even though he had team members capable of doing the task, they were already too busy.
We'd been trying to write those scripts for months. The contractor had it all sorted out and working in just a couple of days.
To solve his reporting problems, Michael decided to invest his personal time. He spent a few nights at home brushing up on his Microsoft Excel skills by taking a short online course. Then he waited for the next report cycle, and spent a Saturday in the office creating a report that would draw in the necessary data in less than a minute. It was a bit rough the first few times he ran it, but after a few weeks he'd fixed all the bugs and could turn out the weekly reports in about ten minutes.
The loan laptops turned out to be one of the easiest problems to solve, from a technical perspective.
One of our server guys showed us we could already do this with what we have. No need to buy any more software to make it work.
A simple booking system was set up in just a few hours. But not all the users adopted the system, and despite training and repeat reminders, continued to send booking requests by email.
Despite the resistance to the new booking system, Michael's team freed up several hours each week by automating the new account creation and weekly report processes. Michael can now assign one of his staff an afternoon each week to work on updating documentation. Better processes and documentation have improved their closure rates on support calls. It also makes it easier to on-board new help desk members.
Andrew is a database specialist who consults independently to multiple customers. His day is a steady stream of meetings, phone calls and emails. He feels like he is always playing phone tag with customers, and his inbox is overflowing with emails that demand attention.
The distractions during the day leave Andrew with no time to focus on writing proposals, designs, and reports. As a result, he often spends his nights and weekends catching up on that work.
I have to work extra hours to get them done, otherwise I don't produce anything that actually gets me paid.
He's feeling burned out, but doesn't want to drop any of his customers.
When I spoke to Andrew, I asked him why he let other people inject their priorities into his day. Yes, they are his customers, but usually they will survive with a few hours wait for an email response.
I suggested a few changes for Andrew to try.
- First, change his voicemail greeting to the following. “Hi, this is Andrew. I can't take your call right now. Please don't leave a message, as I won't hear it. Instead, please send me an email with your enquiry, and I will check it by the end of the day. If you're a customer with a critical issue, please send me a text message at this number describing the problem, and I will get back to you immediately.”
- Next, turn off email except for three specific times of day. At 7:00am he checks for anything important that has been sent overnight. At 11:30am he checks again, allowing 30 minutes to respond to anything that needs an answer or acknowledgement, before taking a lunch break. One more at 4:00pm, allowing enough time to respond to anything that requires it.
- Finally, switch his phone to silent/vibrate, and turn off all phone notifications except for text messages.
The changes were very uncomfortable for Andrew.
At first I felt more stressed than before, worried that I was missing urgent emails and calls. But pretty soon I realised that most of the time the questions can wait. My customers have been fine with it. I apologised to one of them for the delay in responding and he said he hadn't even noticed. Turns out they're often as busy as I am, and my replies would go unread for hours anyway.
One of the other realisations was the amount of unwanted email that Andrew receives. Forced to triage his messages in a short period of time, he saw how much email he was deleting or filing away without needing to read or respond to it.
The changes opened up more space in Andrew's day to perform focused work. When new tasks come in, he triages them at one of the set times each day, acknowledges the customer and provides an ETA, then adds it to his work queue. The rest of the time he's free to dedicate his attention to the current task for hours at a time.
What They Have in Common
Each of the three stories above has the same common elements.
1. Removal of interruptions
Kate's team of developers cut down on meetings, emails, and phone calls that interrupted their flow, allowing more time to focus on solving complex problems.
Michael's help desk team removed some short, repetitive tasks which made room for dedicated hours to be spent on improvement work such as documentation.
Andrew eliminated the distractions from his day that were causing him to spend nights and weekends catching up on work that needed focus and concentration.
2. Investment in streamlining and automation
Kate's team streamlined their customer interactions by blocking meetings into specific hours of the day, and by encouraging customers to have meetings or send emails about multiple topics at once, instead of interrupting for each one separately.
Michael's help desk team saved hours by automating a few repetitive, manual tasks.
Andrew took back control of his day by limiting email and phone interruptions to three small blocks of time.
3. Team and workplace culture
Kate's team met resistance from some customers, but enough of them went along with the new system to make it work overall.
Michael's was able to get approval to invest in a contractor to develop the scripted account creation process.
Andrew's customers adapted to his new way of communicating, with most of them not even noticing the changes.