How to Tackle ‘Time Bandits’

Unwelcome interruptions can steal more than half your workday

By Dana Wilkie Jun 29, 2015

E-mails, meetings, bosses, co-workers, phone calls, noises, pop-up screens, computer problems.

All of these can become what Edward G. Brown, president and founder of time management consulting firm Cohen Brown Management Group, likes to call “time bandits”—his favorite term for the daily interruptions that he says can rob employees of three to five hours every workday.

If that sounds implausible, ask yourself how long it takes to:

• Open an e-mail, digest its contents and craft a reply—multiplied by all the e-mails you get in one day?

• Refocus on a task after a colleague pulls you into a conversation?

• Fix a computer, technology or machine malfunction that is preventing you from doing your work?

• Sit through a meeting that seems to serve no purpose?

• Eliminate the extraneous “noise” in your workday—including those pop-up ads and screens that demand you hunt for the little button that makes them disappear?

Brown, author of The Time Bandit Solution: Recovering Stolen Time You Never Knew You Had (Cohen Brown Picture Company, 2014), says that it’s not only the interruption itself that swipes time from your workday.

“Interruptions are not momentary nuisances, they are greedy, grasping thieves of your time,” said Brown. “There’s the interruption itself that throws you off task. There’s loss of momentum due to the work stoppage. There’s the time wasted reassembling your thoughts and resources. There’s frustration at having to rebuild them, which dissipates energy. There’s the distress and fatigue of having to make up for time lost. All of these things can cause errors—so you have to do the task over again, which of course takes even more time.”

Respondents to a June 2015 survey by CareerBuilder.com, a popular online job search and recruiting service, said the top productivity killers in the workplace are: cellphones/texting (54 percent), gossip (37 percent), e-mail (31 percent), co-workers dropping by (27 percent) and meetings (26 percent). The survey also revealed that these workplace distractions lead to compromised work quality (cited by 45 percent of respondents), missed deadlines (21 percent) and loss in revenue (21 percent).

“People won’t take seriously the need to protect their time until they realize how much time they lose to interruptions, so I have [clients] account for not just the time it takes to attend to the interruption, but how much time it takes to restart where they left off,” Brown said. “They are astonished to discover that, on average, they lose from three to five hours a day this way. And this holds across all kinds of industries, all levels, and all job types. No one is immune to interruptions—from the CEO on down.”

Brown admits that he used to unwittingly distract his own employees from the jobs he would give them.

“I’d give an assignment to a hardworking, reliable employee, and … half an hour later, I’d call him to noodle on a creative idea,” Brown said. “An hour would pass and I’d ask him to show me an item on last month’s financials. Two hours later, I’d ask him to show me the results of the first assignment. How could he excel on any of those tasks? If you have good, hardworking employees, and a boss who doesn’t ‘get it’ about interruptions, then you [can] have a train wreck of productivity and a lot of frustration all around.”

Solutions?

Eliminating interruptions at work requires a change in work culture, Brown said. His suggestions:

Size up the problem. Estimate how much interruptions are costing your company in lost time, employee dissatisfaction and employee turnover.

Bring attention to the problem. If interruptions are robbing employees’ productivity, it’s not because workers aren’t disciplined or managers are thoughtless, Brown said. It’s because your workers have grown accustomed to “tolerating interruptions instead of recognizing them for the time thieves they are.”

Demonstrate the benefits of tackling time bandits. Show workers and bosses how they’ll all profit from uninterrupted work.

Recognize that most workers are their own worst time bandits. “Most workers are not skilled in what I call focal locking,” Brown said. “Focal locking means concentrating in the face of many distractions.” To teach clients this, Brown has them keep track of the time it takes to attend to each interruption, to regain focus and momentum, to restart a task they had just left, and to fix any errors they made because they had to restart a task.

Teach workers how to allocate the time they save. If training workers to steer clear of interruptions gives them another three to five hours of work time, “don’t assume that people know how to handle a windfall of time” on their hands, Brown said. “They may need to learn how to separate their harder tasks from easier tasks so they can allocate appropriate time to each.” They may also need to learn how to efficiently address several minor tasks at once.

Said Brown: “These [can] become lifelong habits that give people control of one of the most precious resources they have—their time.”

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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