Manager, Interrupted: How to trade all of that multi-tasking for some real focus
It’s 3:00 p.m. You’re sitting at your desk, trying to edit and file to the web the six paragraphs on your computer screen, a breaking account of the fire that has reduced downtown traffic to a crawl.
Your phone rings. The reporter at the fire wants to add a sentence about a new detour. You take the information and add it. Back to editing. Your mobile phone buzzes. It’s a news alert: the mayor has decided not to seek reelection. Then the phone rings. The city government reporter has the news about the mayor. Tweet it, you tell her, then file three paragraphs for the web and call back to discuss a follow-up. You forward the news alert to the news and web desks to let them know what’s coming.
Back to the fire story. It’s 3:06 p.m. Your phone rings. It’s a reporter who wants to take next Friday off…
For the newsroom manager, the workday can seem like a relentless string of interruptions.
Perhaps that’s because it is. And in today’s resource-strapped newsrooms, you can feel like the string is wrapped around your neck.
Does it have to be this way? Can a manager do anything about the interruptions that always seem to complicate life at the worst possible moment?
I say yes. In fact, I'd say you can even learn to love them. (I’ll try to get to my suggestions before you get interrupted.)
First, a reality check.
Before managers come to Poynter for a leadership seminar, I ask them to keep a log of their activities—all of their activities—for one typical work day. They arrive with sheets of paper, filled with a single-spaced record of their work. When I ask what struck them about their lists, many say: “We really do a lot.”
Then they invariably say: “And I get interrupted constantly.”
To be sure, nearly all jobs include interruptions—and they clearly have a negative impact on the quality of work. A good deal of research has been done into the impact of interruptions—and into the effectiveness of “multi-tasking,” our favorite coping mechanism.
You might have heard some of these findings. They include:
- On the average, people take more than 23 minutes following an interruption to return to the work.
- We interrupt themselves a lot—almost as much as outside sources interrupt us.
- “Multi-taskers are terrible at every aspect of multitasking.”
- Multi-tasking isn’t really multi-tasking at all. We can only do one cognitive task at a time. When you’re editing, checking e-mail, texting and listening on speakerphone to a Webinar, you’re actually “task-switching.”
And then there’s a study that found that people who accept interruptions as part of their workday typically make adjustments. The researchers’ observation certainly matched my experience:
“When people are constantly interrupted, they develop a mode of working faster to compensate for the time they know they will lose by being interrupted.”
The researchers’ next observation also rang true:
“Yet working faster with interruptions has its cost: people in the interrupted conditions experienced a higher workload, more stress, higher frustration, more time pressure, and effort.”
Put another way: Merely working faster to compensate for interruptions ultimately tightens the string around your neck.
You need to do more than simply compensate. You need a plan, one built on an idea that might seem counterintuitive:
Interruptions are essential contributors to the newsroom manager’s success.
That's right. Often, interruptions are good.
Think about it. The news alert about the mayor tips you off to an important story. The call from the reader who caught a mistake during today’s morning show affords you a chance to improve your credibility with a correction. Even the call from the reporter who wants a day off can be good for a number of reasons—maybe it tips you off to a staffer’s personal crisis; maybe it just gives you a chance to acknowledge a staffer’s hard work.
No, you neither can—nor should you want to—eliminate the interruptions in your workday. Instead, you need to:
- Make the most of the interruptions that benefit your work. (News tips, interactions with the public, important personnel matters.)
- Reduce (or at least better manage) the interruptions over which you have control. (Email, social media, phone calls that you initiate.)
- Minimize the disruptive nature of interruptions, whatever their source, on your work.
Here are a few ideas for getting started:
Keep a log of one typical work day. Start when you get to the building, writing down every activity that you engage in. Include everything. Coffee breaks, the water cooler conversation about last night’s game, a question from a colleague that you answer. When the log is completed, highlight the interruptions. Now note the interruptions you caused; the times you stopped what you were doing to check email, tweet, ask a colleague about the agenda for this afternoon’s meeting.
Keeping the log will be a pain in the keyboard. But it will be revelatory—in many ways. Just identifying the interruptions that you control will give you the chance to make different choices, like …
Resist the need to check email constantly. Facebook and Twitter, too. For every time that you call up email and find an urgent message, there are 50 times you find nothing important (or worse, a message that requires an answer—but could have waited). Too late. The damage is done. How about trying to complete the task you’re doing before checking email?
Resist all impulse activity. It’s not just about email. It’s about stopping what you’re doing for any activity that suddenly crosses your mind. “I need to tweet a link to this afternoon’s web report.” “I forgot to call the statehouse reporter about tomorrow’s budget hearing.” “It’s been an hour since I updated the news budget.” All of these activities have two things in common. All have value, and all—if you deal with them immediately—will take you away from what you’re doing. Try counting to 10 before you switch activities. You can do it. You’re stronger than you think.
Invest in sticky notes. The biggest problem I have with self-interruption begins with this statement to myself: “Deal with it now. It will only take a minute.” Unfortunately, it rarely takes a minute. And 15 minutes (or more) later, when I return to the task that was interrupted, I’ve lost my train of thought. What if, instead of stopping what I’m doing, I make a quick note to myself to return an email, tweet out a story or call a colleague about a meeting?
Taking care of things as they happen—without regard to the importance of what is being interrupted—reflects the belief that efficiency produces quality. Not necessarily. Sometimes efficiency actually compounds the disruptive effect of the interruption you were attempting to address.
Get comfortable with “Can this wait?” Every interruption presents a value proposition. Two activities are vying for your attention (and remember, the brain cannot deal with two cognitive activities at once.) So which is more important: What you are doing now, or what the interruption is asking you to do? Some managers almost always vote for themselves (I didn’t like working for them); others usually vote for the interruption (the copy desk didn’t like working with them). Fact is, sometimes you need to stay focused on what you’re doing— on deadline, for example, you need to edit. When you’re having a difficult career conversation with someone, you need to stay in the moment. When that is the case, an appropriate response to your interrupter is, “Can we talk in an hour?” Or “Will tomorrow work?” Or “can someone else help you?”
This is not to suggest that the reason for the interruption is not important. It’s a reminder that managing is about making choices—and prioritizing how you spend your time—to have the best possible impact.
Schedule stuff. Another great use of the log is to identify times of the day that are less hectic—times when you could schedule work that can make the interruptions that occur later less disruptive. Regularly scheduling 20 minutes to give staffers individual feedback can address performance issues that otherwise might pop up on deadline. Setting aside 30 minutes early in the day to edit a non-deadline story reduces the chance an interruption will destroy your focus. Use your schedule to exert as much control on your day as possible. Get stuff done before it has to compete with external interruptions for your attention.
Assign your staff to a few shifts on the desk. Sometimes the people who interrupt you on deadline have no idea they are being disruptive. Nothing more effectively shows the staff their impact on the operation than letting them help manage it for a few days. Suddenly, for example, the reasons for deadlines are clear. It’s also a great way to measure a staffer’s editing potential and increase the staff’s versatility.
Create a time of day for admin. Talk to your staff about bringing you administrative concerns at a specific time of day. Deadline is not a time to talk about holiday schedules. On the other hand, nothing increases your credibility as a manager more than demonstrating that you care about such issues. Be clear that this is not about dismissing or trivializing administrative questions—it’s actually about handling them better than you can on deadline. (And ultimately, you’ll be judged on how—not when—you dealt with those holiday schedules.)
One last thought: If you decide to respond to an interruption—for any reason—shift your focus completely to the new activity. Dealing with someone’s issue while attempting to continue what you were working on diminishes both activities.
Do one thing at a time. After all, that’s all our brains can handle.