The Magnifying Glass and the Prism

Consider the power of a magnifying glass: it concentrates the sun’s rays and enables you to generate heat and fire (and to inflict needless horror on ants, if you’re nine years old).

Now consider the prism: it refracts light and makes pretty colors.

How do you wield your time and attention at work – as a magnifying glass or as a prism? If you’re like most people, you’re probably getting pretty colors but not much heat. That is to say, you start one task and then allow yourself to be interrupted by phone calls (only some of which are really important), emails (virtually none of which are important), meetings (need I say more?), and knocks on the door. Not only do all these interruptions undermine the quality of your work, but it also takes you longer to get the job done.

You know this is true. You’ve undoubtedly had the experience of having to re-read your penetrating analysis of the French goldfish food market because you lost your train of thought, or struggled with the design of a spreadsheet because you forgot what function you were trying to insert in a cell.

In other words, pretty colors, not much heat.

It’s true that some disruptions are due to legitimate crises that you have to handle at that moment. But unless you’re stationed in a missile silo or work in the cardiac unit at the hospital, the vast majority of them can be addressed later.

Here are some ideas on how to reduce the unnecessary interruptions and increase the amount of time for concentrated, focused work.

  • Mini 1:1 meetings. Hold mini 1:1 meetings with key staff – a five or ten-minute meeting twice per day, for example – and encourage them to hold all non-urgent issues till those meetings. Also, create a manila folder for each person (and have them make ones for you) to store reminders for all the items you want to talk about. By bundling your discussion topics and questions, you and your colleagues can cover the material in the 1:1 meeting, rather than suffering death by a thousand cuts.
  • The professor is in. Just because you have an open door policy doesn’t mean that your door has to be open for the inane drop-ins concerning leftover birthday cake in the break room. Try keeping office hours – two or three hours during which people can come to see you with any issue. Then block out several hours for uninterrupted, focused work of your own.
  • Pavlov doesn’t live here anymore. Turn off the email alerts, and don’t process your email more than two or three times per day. When you reflexively read every email as soon as it comes in, you’re pre-ordaining yourself to splintered attention, lost focus, and low efficiency.

Yes, I know you're convinced the company will grind to a halt without your tender ministrations to the inbox, but I promise: if the IRS is sitting in your biggest customer’s office and he needs your help in justifying cat food receipts as a business expense, he’s not going to contact you by email.

It’s up to you: do you want heat and power, or do you want pretty colors?