Earlier this week, I quoted a software developer who posted this comment on Twitter:
“Surgeon: This procedure will take three hours. Manager: Ok, I can give you from 9:00 to 10:00, 11:00 to 12:00 and 2:00 to 3:00. The rest of the day you’ll be in meetings. Ridiculous, right? Now, imagine the surgeon is a software developer.”
Someone on LinkedIn suggested that this was OK since the three hours needed (in the software context) were still available that day. I wasn’t sure if their assertion was serious or not, so I offered the following analogy to clarify why these two schedules are so different.
Not all three hour lengths of time are the same. If it takes three hours to fly from NYC to Chicago, you can fly non-stop. However, you can also get there if you fly from NYC to Buffalo, then from Buffalo to Cincinnati, then from Cincinnati to Chicago. You still spend roughly the same three hours in the air, but it’s far less efficient. Getting into the work (not the same as starting it), then stopping to change focus for the meeting, then switching back to the focus work and getting into it again (twice) is much like the three sets of climb out, cruise, descend.
Three hours in a single block is a bit different than three hours scattered across a single day. However, there are a few other considerations for anyone doing work that requires focus.
Non-stop is better for focus
If you flew for three hours from NYC to Chicago, you might have two hours at cruising altitude to get some work done or watch The Office.
If you flew from NYC to Buffalo, then to Cincinnati, then to Chicago, each of those three short flights are going to consist mostly of climb out and descent. You’re going to have very little focus time thanks to the short flight length and the hectic nature of a rushed in-cabin service. It’s likely that you’re going to find that time useful for reading, light analysis and little else.
In addition, you have to spend time boarding, getting off the plane, changing gates, and waiting for the next boarding window. If things go well, you won’t have a delay caused by a mechanical issue, weather, or the lack of a crew (it happens). Even then, you still have to “prep” for the flight: get on the plane, wait, fly, wait a bit more, then get off the plane.
It’s a lot like going to a meeting. Exit current task, meeting prep, meeting, debrief / summarize, move to next task / meeting.
Focus killers only need a toehold
The other thing about these breaks between those precious one hour segments is that they open the door to chaos. In other words, someone pulls you into a meeting, or you get distracted by someone who needs help with a problem, etc.
“Got a minute?” never takes a minute – and there are plenty of opportunities for got-a-minutes on the way to/from a meeting. Even if you work remotely, the fractured time between your focus sessions are subject to this.
One way to avoid this during your focus work sessions (even the short ones) is to put yourself in do-not-disturb (DND) mode on your phone, email, etc. Not everyone can do that, but if you can, do so. Despite that, there will be occasions where something serious could require your involvement. The big ones are tough to avoid. The little ones that wait… those are the ones you want to defer / delay during focus time.
Meetings aren’t bad, but…
Meetings are often essential to make sure everyone is well informed, “on the same page”, and / or coordinated for the next effort. Yet meetings are often looked upon by the attendees as unproductive, expensive, & wasteful of employee time.
Effective meetings have these characteristics:
- Have an agenda.
- Have one person keeping the meeting on agenda.
- Include only those folks who need to be there.
- Begin on time.
- End on time.
- Allow a few minutes to transition to the next meeting if attendees have back-to-back meetings.
- Are summarized at the end to make sure there are no misunderstandings, misreads, or “I missed that”s.
If the meetings you call don’t fit this profile, see if you can improve them one characteristic at a time. Meanwhile, do what you can to help your team get blocks of focus time.