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Boost Productivity Using a Do Not Disturb Policy

I have lately found myself busier than usual with meetings, project reviews, requests for assistance from team members, and the like. This caused me difficulties in finding time to do solo thinking-intensive work – specifically figuring out the architecture & design of a new software system. Books like Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams and Flow: The Psychology Of Optimal Experience make it clear that optimal productivity for such tasks arises from a quiet working environment that allows one to concentrate on a single task for an extended period of time without interruption. Both books suggest that a single distraction that breaks your focus can cost as much as fifteen minutes of time in order to regain that state of flow. I have known this for a long time, and have always sought out blocks of time of at least a couple hours in which to do design tasks. This time, however, the increased demands on my time made such blocks few and far between, which in turn seriously reduced my productivity on these tasks. In order to reverse this trend I experimented with and adopted a number of do-not-disturb policies which I found to be indispensable in boosting my design productivity and allowing me to make my deadlines.

Use a "Do-Not-Disturb" Indicator

My first approach involved trying to prevent people from dropping by my cubicle and distracting me. I placed a sign marked "Do Not Disturb" on the back of my second chair. When I did not want to be disturbed, I moved the chair so that the sign on the back was visible to anyone approaching my cubicle. I informed my coworkers of what I was doing and they were generally (but not entirely) supportive. This approach helped, but had a number of limitations. Coworkers having a discussion in an adjacent cubicle were sometimes distracting, especially if they mentioned my name or if they were discussing a topic I found interesting. I had to learn to remember to put out the chair when I needed to concentrate – sometimes I forgot. I had to learn to stay focused and not let myself get distracted by other conversations – this takes discipline and I find is an ongoing battle. Coworkers sitting adjacent to me had to learn to be careful asking questions to me over the cubicle wall, as they could not see whether I was in do-not-disturb mode. The biggest limitation, however, was that it did nothing about all the meetings I was being scheduled in. Some days I was scheduled in meetings for most of the day, with only small gaps of an hour or less between meetings.

Block Personal Time Between Meetings

The multitude of meetings prompted my next approach, which was to block off time – a minimum of 1.5 hours - in my Outlook calendar between meetings for my own solo design tasks. Doing this also helped with my previous approach: when the time for one of these blocks started the Outlook reminder prompted me to deploy the do-not-disturb chair and focus on my design tasks. The downside of this approach to my team members is that I became much less accessible, either for impromptu drop-ins or for scheduled meetings.

Schedule "Please-Disturb" Times

To address this issue of reduced accessibility I adopted a practice that ironically is the opposite of the previous one: I scheduled "please-disturb" times (in Outlook) during the week for team members to ask questions and get feedback on their work, and communicated these times to the entire team. While I wanted to ensure I was still available to the team, I hoped that having a scheduled time to talk to me would reduce the number of unscheduled drop-ins. In practice this saw mixed results for obvious reasons: team members with questions or needing a review sometimes did not want to wait a day or more, potentially impacting their ability to get work done, in order to wait for a scheduled time. But the approach did work in guaranteeing a certain amount of availability to the team.

Block Personal Time First When Most Productive

After a while using the approach of blocking personal time between meetings I started to notice some patterns. I always seemed to be most productive first thing in the morning rather than after one or more meetings. After meetings my mind is less fresh and I am sometimes distracted by issues discussed in the meetings. Plus I personally have a higher energy level in the morning than the afternoon.

So the idea occurred to me to schedule blocks of personal time first thing in the morning when I am most productive and best able to focus. I also aimed to make these blocks longer – at least two hours and preferably three – than the blocks of time I was scheduling between meetings. I found scheduling these blocks in the current week hard due to meetings, so I started scheduling then in advance. First I scheduled them just for the next week out, but I found this insufficient so I switched to scheduling them a month in advance, and in some cases set up reoccurring events in order to permanently block certain mornings. I then sent an email out explaining what I was doing and that I would be unavailable for meetings most mornings before a certain time.

This approach did cause grief for people trying to schedule a meeting with me as it became much harder for them to find time for me. I have had to make compromises – typically by sacrificing part or all of a blocked morning to important meetings. But otherwise I am very pleased with the boost in productivity I have experienced as a result.

A logical extension of this approach is to expand this practice out to the entire team, so that everyone has the same meeting-free and interruption-free blocks of times throughout the day. I have heard of this being done but have never tried it, partly because other team members typically have far fewer meetings and drop-ins than me. If you have been part of a team that has tried this, please leave a comment describing your experience.

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