Robyn Pearce: Interruptions are hazardous to business

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Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

Last week I was discussing email overload and its impact on productivity with Jean-Michel, the owner of a mid-sized French air-conditioning and heating company.

"I hate email!" was his rather explosive comment.

"It steals my time, the time of my staff and - if I let it - my money.

Not many years ago none of us would receive more than about 10 emails or so per day and most of them were relevant to business. Today everyone seems to think email is the communication method of choice - and it's got out of hand. Some of us receive several hundred mails per day - most of them unimportant.

"Of course many of my staff need email to do their work - but it must be controlled. What kind of control depends on the job they're doing. For me, for example, if I didn't take a very ruthless line with what I allow, I'd have no time to think; no time to focus on business development and major sales; no time to work on higher-level strategy.

They're the activities that keep the business profitable and enable me to provide employment for many people. If I spend too much time on email those people would lose their jobs - because I'd lose my business.

"I will not respond to any cc mail. I will not respond to any group mail. I will not look at email until later in the day. If someone wants my attention they need to phone. And if I find any of my team emailing people sitting next to them instead of having a conversation, (unless it's necessary to record a discussion or decision) I get very cranky."

Jean-Michel's words were ringing in my ears as I started to read Jonathan Spira's book 'Overload! How Too Much Information Is Hazardous To Your Organization'.

He's the CEO and Chief Analyst for New York-based research company Basex and had responded to my June 6th column 'The shocking statistics on email as a productivity-stealer'.

Here is a quote from his book:

"A 30-second interruption can result in as much as 5 minutes of recovery time. In some cases, the knowledge worker never returns to the original task and, when and if it's restarted later, the penalty (i.e. recovery time) is far greater. Interruptions plus recovery time consume as much as 28 per cent of the knowledge worker's day.

'Each time an individual switches tasks and tries to return to the previous task he has to go back in time and recollect his thoughts and recall exactly what he has done and what he has yet to do. Some repetitive work may be involved as well (e.g. redoing the last few steps.) This of course assumes that the individual returns at all - in some instances, the task is forgotten altogether. The interruptions also increase the likelihood of errors being committed."

I checked in with Jonathan about recovery time, for all previous research I'd read had given a range of up to 15-20 minutes as an average recovery time. Basex are constantly researching this issue and his reply is based on their most recent research.

He told me today: "As a general rule, recovery time is 10-20 times the amount of the interruption. That´s where the 5 minutes (from a 30 second interruption) comes from."

Jonathan is not just talking about email as an interruption. There are phone calls, SMS, colleagues, self-interruptions ...and you'll think of a few more. But digital interruptions are the most invasive and addictive.

So, most of his book discusses the seriousness of information overload in the digital environment and gives strategies to solve it.

Of course, email is top of the list, given that it's supposed to make our business dealings more efficient. (However, read his observations on some of the causes of the current world financial mess and what also happened in the US Army and you'll query that efficiency.)

If you'd like more information on this very serious problem, plus his 8 ways to take control, grab yourself a copy of his book. (I got a Kindle version from Amazon.) You may also enjoy www.overloadstories.com

Robyn Pearce (known as the Time Queen) runs an international time management and productivity business, based in New Zealand. Get your free report 'How To Master Time In Only 90 Seconds' and ongoing time tips at gettingagrip.com.

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