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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, February 27, 2006

E-mails, phone, yammer steal time

By Betty Lin-Fisher
Knight Ridder News Service

AKRON, Ohio You sit down at your computer to get some work done.

But there's an e-mail that just came in. Should you check it? Really quick?

Then the phone rings.

After a few minutes, you try to refocus. But the person in the cubicle nearby is talking really loudly about the weekend.

Then somebody stops by your desk to ask you "a quick question."

Sound familiar?

It's amazing that today's workers get anything done. Common office distractions are everywhere from a constant barrage of e-mail to phone calls, interruptions from co-workers and the lure of the Web.

A study last fall by Basex, a New York research firm, found that office distractions ate up 2.1 hours a day for the average worker.

That adds up to 28 billion hours a year, using federal labor statistics and wages, or the loss of $588 billion a year in the U.S. alone.

Another study found that employees devoted an average of 11 minutes to a project before being distracted. Researchers Gloria Mark and Victor Gonzalez of the University of California Irvine found that once interrupted, it takes workers 25 minutes to return to the original task, if they return at all.

Another interesting finding: People switch activities, such as making a phone call, speaking with someone in their cubicle or working on a document, every three minutes on average, Mark said.

So what's a worker to do?

Try your best to curb the distractions either with self-discipline or polite assertiveness.

"A lot of times, we are our own worst enemies," said Jonathan B. Spira, chief executive and chief analyst for Basex, which focuses on knowledge sharing and collaboration issues in the workplace.

PRIORITIZE YOUR E-MAILS

Fifty-five percent of the 1,000 respondents in the Basex survey said they check e-mail messages either immediately or shortly after the message lands. Forty-five percent said they received 50 or more e-mails a day, so Spira said workers who check e-mail quickly "are interrupting themselves."

Kay Stephan, owner of Classicprotocol.com, a business etiquette and training firm based in Canal Fulton, Ohio, advises checking e-mail three times a day or if you feel you need to check it more often, send a quick acknowledgment that you've received the e-mail and wait to act on it. Stephan suggests creating a physical or computer "to-do" folder for that e-mail.

"You don't want to be a slave to your e-mail," said Stephan, a former University of Akron professor of office administration.

What if you have a boss who will call you within 10 minutes if you don't reply to an e-mail? Or you know that if you don't respond right away, you never will because the e-mail will be buried in your inbox?

Prioritize, said Stephan and Spira.

Use subject lines and e-mail addresses to figure out what you need to respond to first and what might be able to wait.

Or talk to your boss and say you're streamlining your responses so you can be more productive. (What boss isn't going to like that?) Ask your boss to call if it's something that needs immediate attention.

A LITTLE SELF-CONTROL

Sometimes workers need to be connected to e-mail constantly. But try to use some self-control, Spira said.

"You shouldn't interrupt something else just to check e-mail. That doesn't depend upon the (office) culture. That's just a bad work habit," he said.

Mark said her next study will be to ask workers why they read e-mail.

"I do think that for many people, it's compulsive behavior," she said.

It's also important not to go to extremes. Spira said he interviewed one worker who said she read her e-mail only three times a week.

"We don't want you to close off the channels of communication. We just want you to manage them with the understanding that there's other work besides e-mail," he said.

Assertiveness is the best answer to corral a chatty co-worker who doesn't get the hint or to encourage someone who is just stopping by to keep going, Stephan said.

"One little trick is if you see somebody come into your office, stand up. If you stand up, that lets them know that you're in a bit of a hurry," she said.

"Body language is really important. Look at your watch. I think it's rude, but if somebody looks at their watch, you get the impression that they're in a hurry."

Or ask someone to take a walk with you while you talk. That will give you a final destination to wrap up the conversation, Stephan said.

Admitting to someone that you're busy and can't talk is not being overly rude.

"You have a right to say what you need," she said.

"We're just bombarded. There's all this information we're getting all the time. You have to be a little stern. Sometimes people have problems being assertive you need to be assertive, not aggressive and not mean," Stephan said.

WHEN THE PHONE RINGS

Phone calls are hard to avoid especially if you have a job that requires you talk to clients.

If you're working on a heavy-duty project, it's OK to let the phone calls go to voice mail, Stephan said. But be clear on your voice mail when you anticipate returning calls.

Or, if you can, have your phone calls forwarded temporarily to a co-worker, she said.

"When you need to be most productive, it's not the time to be answering e-mails and phone calls," she said.

For all tasks, workers must able to distinguish between things that are urgent, important and none of the above, Spira said. Often, when a person interrupts another person, it is not for something that is urgent or could not have waited for a better time, he said.

"You can't cut off everything. You certainly need to be able to self-reflect and put interruptions of other people away for what might be a better time," he said.