Time fragmentation is a real thing. In the computer world, fragmentation leads to storage space being “wasted”. Over time and with use, long contiguous regions of needed space become fragmented into smaller and smaller contiguous areas. Eventually, it may become impossible for the program to obtain large contiguous chunks of memory and it bogs down or breaks completely. The tech solution is to defrag – a process that gathers all the fragmented pieces back together.
Interruptions cause fragmentation in our brains. We’re surrounded by interesting options to explore, tasks that need immediate attention and those that don’t, but we choose to address them because of one reason or another. Switching between things frequently causes fragmentation. We all live with it and we’re even pretty good at it. But should we be? Yes and no.
Studies show that email interruptions are the biggest culprit and most people won’t admit it. As a matter of fact, many people are addicted to the interruptions and feel unproductive if they aren’t in a rabid state of responding. We have a policy that all emails must be returned the day received, unless it comes in within the last 30 minutes of the day and you don’t work in tech support, as they take calls until they are scheduled to walk out the door. The rule further requires that if the response requires more time, an acknowledgement of the email gets sent.
Another important “rule” is that we don’t owe the same response responsibility to every email that lands in our inbox. I have a pretty decent color code system that I apply to mail, which helps me with follow-up replies. I’m happy to share my strategy if you email me.
Like most of you, my days aren’t highly regulated, they are a combination of desk time, interoffice meeting time and away from office time. The reality is, that if I don’t reply to my emails instantly, nothing in my life or the life of a sender is going to change. If you haven’t read Deep Work, by Cal Newport, where he discusses creativity’s biggest enemy, time fragmentation, you might want to crack it open or listen to a podcast on his findings and recommendations.
Why? Because even if you know that for “workers” or anyone to be effective we need to be able to focus for extended periods, you probably haven’t changed your behavior to match the findings. Even armed with knowledge of studies showing that every time we are distracted and interrupted from what we are doing, even for thirty seconds, its costs us ten to twenty minutes to get back on the concentration track, we tend to respond more frequently than needed. There’s few who make changes in how we handle interruptions. As a result, I guess most of us are separated from concentrated thought a lot!
How would you feel about setting a “Do Not Disturb Time Zone” in your day? A time when you don’t let anything disrupt you. A time you can engage in thoughtful activity. Could you impose such a thing across your organization? Could you set a couple of time zones? I know very successful people who have implemented such policies with pretty good success. I have found greater success when companies don’t set the same time zones across the board but rather, they insist that everyone commit to setting and posting to all their own personal Do Not Disturb Time Zones for at least 2 hours a day.
There’s another benefit to not replying instantly to emails – you condition people who email you that email is not an instant messenger app. Messaging is a completely different form of communication…hence, the name “instant’ messenger. We also have a pretty good rule for when the phone…yes, the phone, should be used and it’s more often than you might think. At some point we may move to a platform like Slack and you may want to look into that as well. Slack requires some organization rules and set up as it’s all about Channels – group chats, but it may be worth your time to check it out.
Gone is the time when email is the only game in town for business communication. The default setting for communication for the typical office maximizes and even encourages time fragmentation. I suggest it’s time to reevaluate your default settings. Whether they were set by inertia or by well-meaning people, my guess is they aren’t working that well and you don’t even know it. Are you ready to build some defragmenting into your life?