Ah finally. There's scientific evidence. It had to come in - that multitasking beyond a limit is bound to hit the law of diminishing returns. Coincidentally, there were two articles on one day in different publications about the same:
The New Atlantis - The Myth of Multitasking
The NYT - Fighting a workplace war against distraction
The articles make their case - I'm not going to repeat ad nauseum what they say. I've had my share of issues with trying to do any serious 'thinking' work with the amount of interruption a typical office environment provides - hallway chatter related to work that you may want to tune out, your neighbor's phone ringing, email...
There are, however, things that help me cope. These articles talk about cutting back distractions, but you need to push back hard yourself. My favorite tricks:
- Close that office door: OK. I work in a company that has long held a policy of individual/shared offices to be better than having cubicles. I have an office all to myself. I close the door. "Open" workspaces with the collegial atmosphere they provide are IMO overrated. When you need to get work done, you shut yourself off for 3-4 hours if you need to. Simple. If people need you, they can knock.
To make my office seem more "open" even though the door is closed, I always leave my blinds open. People can see me working in there and I've not visually shut myself off from what's going on.
If you're not in crunch mode, door stays open. Maybe you put candy in your office and people swing by to chat you up. Of course, if you have a cubicle, a nice pair of noise-canceling headphones should do the trick.
- Manage email: People can be harsh and talk about shutting down email while working. I'm not that hardcore. I use Microsoft Outlook for my email and one of the first things I do now when configuring my email client is - lots of rules, no alerts. I have rules for a gazillion things - emails go into different folders based on who sent the email, whether they were sent directly to me or to a particular alias. Different aliases have their own folders. There's a whole level of complexity I have in my rules with exceptions etc. so that stuff is classified and I know what to prioritize based on which folder that email falls into.
And yes, no alerts. When I mean no alerts, I mean that. Absolutely. No. Alerts. No sound when email pops in your inbox, no pop-up from your system tray with subject and some blurb of email. Nothing. I don't know I've received email unless I actually go to my inbox and check. This may not work for some people whose life revolves around replying promptly to emails, but believe me - except in very rare cases, answering someone in 15 minutes or even an hour versus 30 seconds is not going to be the end of the world. Plus, we have corporate messaging at work. Urgent things go on IM immediately.
- Calendars are not just for meetings: I'd like to think I'm not overscheduled. However, there are things that are important long-term which I'm likely to neglect simply because there are other things that suddenly gain urgency. The simple thing to do is block time on your calendar. I have 30 minutes blocked on my calendar post-lunch for answering customer questions. I drop everything I'm doing then to look at queries on newsgroups, internal mailing lists and some external forums I monitor. Unless there's something earth-shaking happening, I spend this time on that.
Focus is something that's becoming an obsession with me at work. Any ideas on how you fight distraction?