Take a Break From Distractions

The fountain of great work isn't located at the water cooler

By Jeremy Pollard

I had a succinct conversation with an executive VP of a large Canadian corporation about meetings and the use of time. He told me that if he read and answered every email he received he would waste four hours of each productive day.

So that's why he didn't respond to mine, eh!

It brings to mind the whole issue of why we can't do our real jobs—barriers to productivity such as email. Technology has helped to make our jobs less personal; that's for sure. We are constantly connected, which creates continuous distractions from the work we are supposed to be doing. Besides worthless meetings, this is the biggest challenge we face on the plant floor—distractions.

Proper SCADA/HMI screen development suggests that we keep it simple. Use of color should only be used for accent, so as to not confuse the operator. Alarm management is a big thing these days because too many alarms creates a distracted operator.

So why should we treat our own day-to-day stuff any differently? I would love to track the time wasted by the selfishness of an individual who, by virtue of an email sent, will create chaos in the working day of the recipient.

See Also: Does technology drive inequality?

Sending an email is easy. Give the problem to someone else to solve, or ask someone else to do your work for you. It's just simply too easy. Since we are always “on,” it adds up to the time taken to evaluate the interruption, read the text, actually research the answer and maybe respond.

And then you have to return to what you were doing in the first place—a relearn.

If you are lucky enough to have an office with a door, you can close it to avoid that personal touch, but technology will always find you. Remember that thing called a phone?

So, I read an article in a magazine. It was called, “When You Can't Do Your Job.” It related the productivity of a company to the simple fact that the staff needs to be where they want to be.

In our line of business, working from a remote location, while possible, isn't very practical when we are designing, programming online and fixing things. We just need to be there. This doesn't mean that “remoting” isn't feasible for the mobile worker. I'm just saying that it's hard to do a startup from afar.

Sarah Barmak authored the article, and she related the story of a graphic/video company called Storieboards. They have no office. All the work is done online and shared in the cloud. Productivity has reached epic proportions. It seems that not having a water cooler is a bonus.
She references a TED talk by Jason Fried, "Why Work Doesn't Happen at Work." He suggests that there's an expectation of staff to do great work. But great work rarely happens at the office.

Why? Distractions create work moments, but not work days.

Creativity and thinking requires a large block of uninterrupted time and space, Fried suggests. Controls engineers fall into this category.

Writing code or trying to solve a process problem requires your full attention, but rarely can you give it your full and undivided attention. How can we become more productive and do some of this great work Fried talks about?

I examined my own work day. What I discovered is that, as I age, my attention span gets challenged hourly. I almost need a distraction just to reset. That dovetails into Fried's assertion that our work day operates in phases.

And we can't do great work if those phases get interrupted. Those involuntary interruptions, like a BlackBerry bing or a phone call, create a phase interruption which is difficult to recover from.

I experienced it while I was writing this column. A 5-minute phone call really took more than 30 minutes of productive time away. I got distracted enough to go and check email and then check a few websites because I was already off-line from the task at hand.

When I am writing code, I can write good code for a couple of hours before I need a break; that is a voluntary distraction. Getting up and moving around and getting a cup of coffee isn't a bad thing.

Remembering when I worked for Rockwell Automation, the real distractions came from internal forces. I used to call it the water-cooler effect. Since talk was cheap, lots of people did it, but it was improbable that the words spoken were based on anything you happen to be involved with at the time.

Is this the day and age where we have to do more with less, and with the level of creativity that is demanded of us? Maybe we just need to turn off in a comfortable place to do the great work.

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