If somebody stole your wallet and returned it with the cash missing, you’d notice it. If you came home to find the flat screen missing over the fireplace and your jewelry drawer on the floor, you would probably exclaim, “We’ve been robbed!”
So why don't people notice when they're robbed of a something much more valuable than their watches or TVs: their precious, fleeting, unrenewable time?
Oh, we are miserably aware that we never seem to finish our work or find time for the good stuff. We complain that we simply don’t have enough time.
But we do. The problem is that we don’t protect it. We let people and devices swipe it from right under our noses.
Who are these “time bandits?” They're only the most important people in our lives: the boss, colleagues, family and friends. “Got a minute?” they ask. And just like that, you're robbed again of something valuable that you can never retrieve.
If you're like most people, you lose three to five hours every day due to interruptions. Worse yet, you don’t realize your time has been stolen. So it happens again and again while you wonder vaguely, Where does the time go?
It goes to interruptions; that’s where.
If you want to retrieve that stolen time and use it the way you desire, here’s what to do:
1. Count it up. You won’t be committed to winning back the time until you realize what the current situation is costing you. Total up the time you're losing to interruptions every day and don’t be fooled by that “Got a minute?” Interruptions trail a lot more than a lost minute in their thieving wake: There’s the interruption that throws you off task. There’s the time wasted reassembling your thoughts and resources, which are now a little staler. There’s the loss of momentum or physiological shortcuts you created to accomplish the task.
Then there's your frustration at having to rebuild your thoughts, dissipating the energy that work thrives upon. Plus there's the distress and fatigue of having to make up for time lost. Count it all up.
Warning: When I train people on this, they routinely come up with three to five hours a day stolen by interruptions!
2. Teach your time bandits. How can you possibly switch from a lifetime of entertaining interruptions and start refusing them without offending your time bandits?
There’s only one way. You have to explain how your staying on task is in their best interests.
They have to want to not interrupt you. You will be tentative or anxious the first few times, but here’s what will ease your way: When your time bandits clearly hear that you have their best interests at heart, they will acquiesce, often with pleasure.
Everybody likes to hear their needs enunciated, and that’s what you’re doing. Just make sure you choose your words carefully and practice delivering them ahead of time. You’re changing your life, you know: It’s worth the practice!
3. Time lock and learn to love It. Now that you’ve staved off interruptions, you must relearn to do what today’s interruption culture has almost destroyed: deliberately carve out time to work alone, totally focused, on a task that will profit from your unswerving attention.
“Alone” doesn’t have a good reputation in the working world. It tends to connote “loner, misfit, doesn’t play well with others.” But if you think about it (if you've had the time), you would immediately consider all the great work accomplished alone: There was only one painter on the scaffolding in the Sistine Chapel, only one guy piloting The Spirit of St. Louis, only one speechwriter on the Gettysburg Address.