Ending the mess of multi-tasking

Butterflying from one task to another means it's easy to get distracted from the important tasks in the workplace. But there are ways to improve focus.

At Primary Asset Consulting we work with many businesses in Australia. And we are witnessing a dangerous habit many people have developed: most of us are becoming ‘serial multi-taskers’. We ‘butterfly’ from one task to another.

You start working on a document and suddenly you hear the sound of a new email which landed in your inbox, or see the envelope icon on the bottom right of your screen. You quickly check the email and before you know it you have spent 10 minutes checking emails. You have started responding to a few and leave them unfinished and open.

You come back to the document and the phone rings. You have a quick five minute conversation.

You come back to the document and a colleague pops in to ask you something.

University of California carried out research on interruptions in the work place. They observed white collar workers in an office, and discovered that we are interrupted on average every three minutes. Every three minutes.

A recent study by BASEX in New York shows that on average workers spend 2.1 hours per day on interruptions. And this can go up to 50 per cent of the day.

We can laugh about it but the issue is much deeper. One of the key characteristics of top performers is focus. It is the ability to 100 per cent immerse ourselves in what we are doing whether at work or at home.

And the issue is simple: we have created a work environment, with open plan layouts, emails, social media etc. that is not conducive to focus and concentration.

So, how do we improve our focus at work? Here are some simple tips:

You control your time

If someone comes and interrupts, ask them to explain in 15 seconds what it is about and you make the decision to allow the interruption or not.

In my experience in 85 per cent of cases the interruption can wait and you could reply with ‘thanks, I understand now. I am working on something very important and need to finish it. Could we talk about this at 3pm today?’ You are in control of your time, not someone else.


With people from your team or people you work very closely with, you are likely to want to share things very often, sometimes on a daily basis. This is normal and important. Communication is key in the workplace, but can create a lot of interruptions.

Time this with the number of people in your team and the number of internal or external key stakeholders, and you could spend a significant amount of time every day dealing with interruptions.

My advice here is simple: batch. Create a weekly, or suitable frequency meeting with the people you need to liaise with very regularly and agree on a simple system, the ‘speak to.’ For example, Sue is in your team and you need to communicate very often. Ask Sue to create a ‘speak to Cyril’ file and you create a ‘speak to Sue’ file. When you have something to share with Sue that can wait until the weekly catch up, and believe me 85 per cent will fit there, write it on your ‘speak to Sue’ file. Ask Sue to do the same. Just before your catch up, take your ‘speak to’ file in the meeting and discuss the items. Simple but very efficient.

Block meetings with yourself and respect them

This is probably the most important point. There are times where you should not allow any interruptions, unless ‘the building is on fire.’ Book a meeting with yourself in your diary and respect it. Start on time, turn off your mobile and email, divert your phone. Find a way that works for you. Close your door if you have an office, work from home, hide yourself in a meeting room or a different floor in the building, work from a coffee shop. If you are working on an important project, block an un-interruptible meeting with yourself and respect it.

If you have a meeting with an important client or key stakeholder, would you arrive late? Would you come with your laptop and send a few emails during the meeting? Would you make a few phone calls while listening to the person? Of course not. When you have an important meeting with someone, you do not allow interruptions. Why wouldn’t you do the same when you are working on an important project yourself?

I remember working with one of the directors of a large company in Australia. He was complaining about being constantly interrupted by his team when at his desk and was unable to concentrate for more than 15 minutes on any topics without someone else coming. We agreed on two things: the speak to system and booking meetings with himself in a separate meeting room.

After a few weeks he came back to me with some interesting feedback. He was now dedicating two hours uninterrupted per day on key strategic projects, more than he had ever done before. This was starting to pay off on his performance. He had also implemented the ‘speak to’ logic with all of his direct reports. He was getting far less interruptions from his team but there was more.

"Not only does my team interrupt me far less by writing things on their speak to list, but what is even better is by the time we have our meeting, they have found solutions themselves to half of what they put on their speak to list,” he said.

Simple ideas but big pay off.

This article is the second in a three-part series on corporate strategy. Part one (Making that hard-earned strategy work, November 29), focused on increasing personal productivity.

Cyril Peupion and his team at Primary Asset Consulting’s main focus is to increase productivity and work life balance by changing work habits. They work with executives and their team in Australia and around the world. Cyril is the author of ‘Work Smarter: Live Better’, which featured in the top 10 business books in Australia and top 100 Amazon worldwide.

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