Eliminating Time Bandits to Increase Productivity

By: Ron Patulski

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It’s common knowledge that we live in a fast-paced, changing world, operating at speeds never experienced before.  With this, come advantages to the way we work and operate in life.  However, it’s not unusual to also experience challenges, which is the yin and yang of most things in life. As a baby boomer, I find myself continually challenged to meet the changing demands of this world, especially when it comes to the valuable commodity of time.  Regardless of the generation you grew up in, we are all in the same boat, constantly challenged to use our time effectively.

In mid-March of 2020, the majority of the world entered a lock-down due to the pandemic which forced us to abruptly change the way we work and live.  It was no longer an option to go to the office and almost overnight, we were forced to find new ways to operate in life.  We learned to adapt to working from home, utilizing technology like Zoom to host meetings, stay connected, and even school our children.  Over the course of the pandemic, being sequestered in the cocoon of our homes, working remotely became the preference.  

We will explore some of the biggest drains on your time, why they occur, and ways to manage or completely destroy them. We also will turn to research to examine the impact of time and energy drains. Regardless, our intention is to provide insight and solutions empowering you to gain more control of your time and enhance the way you work whether you’re in an office environment, or remotely in a home office. 

What Does Research Say About Focus?

According to MIT Professor Earl Miller, one of the leading Neuroscientists in the world, you can only consciously think about one or two things at a time.  This is a fundamental limitation of the human brain.  Unfortunately, we’ve been led to believe we can actually think beyond our brain’s capacity.  As a result, we pride ourselves in multi-tasking and believe we can effectively think about more than one to two things at a time.  In fact, the average American teenager thinks they can follow 6 or 7 forms of media at the same time.  According to research studies, regardless of age, when you focus on more than one thing at a time, you’re actually only doing one thing at a time.  Your brain is juggling very quickly between tasks.  It turns out this juggling (fondly called multi-tasking) comes with a big price tag in efficiency and effectiveness.  When you juggle multiple tasks at once, you make more mistakes, you remember less of what you actually do, and are less effective at each task.

It is important to understand when it comes to your focus that operating in this manner can actually impact your IQ.  Hewlett Packard brought scientists in to study their workers and they split the workers into 2 groups.  The first group was told to just focus on their tasks, and they would not be interrupted.  The other group was told to focus on their tasks, and at the same time, were told they had to answer a heavy load of emails and phone calls.  The scientists then tested the IQ of both groups.  The group that was not interrupted scored 10 IQ points higher.  To give further perspective, in terms of the effect that interruptions have on you, getting “stoned or high”, only impacts your IQ by 5 points.  This means, at least in the short-term, being chronically distracted is twice as detrimental to your intelligence level than getting stoned or high!  This is why Professor Miller said, “we are living in a storm of cognitive degradation as a result of being constantly interrupted”. 

“How long does it take to refocus after being interrupted?”  

A University of California study found that after each interruption it takes over 23 minutes to refocus.  What’s more, the study found that if the interruption takes you onto something else, this form of multitasking can also sap your brainpower in that moment, which is the equivalent of dropping 10 IQ points.  This finding aligns with the conclusion of the Hewlett Packard study previously discussed above.  Both studies clearly demonstrate the adverse effect on your ability to perform at the highest level when multitasking. Stop pretending that multitasking is a superpower. Make an effort to eliminate distractions and learn what is breaking your focus or you will find that tasks take you longer and you aren’t as satisfied with the result.

Time Bandit Habits – What’s breaking your Focus?

Now, let’s consider a few habits and trends that are fueling your time bandits and robbing your productivity and freedom.

Did you know?

We touch our phones on average 2,617 times every 24 hours!” 

Here are a few important research findings from various studies demonstrating habits and trends that impact your ability to focus, steal your effectiveness, and rob you of time.

  • The average American spends 3 hours and 15 minutes a day on their phone
  • We touch our phones on average 2,617 times every 24 hours 
  • The average adult working in an office stays on task for just 3 minutes until they’re distracted
  • Office workers in the United States never get 1 hour of uninterrupted work in a typical day

Surely, you can see why we’ve spent time on the area of focus and what current research is showing, because undoubtedly, focus ultimately determines the quality of the results produced.  The cumulative effect of your results, determines your overall success and ability to obtain your stated goal.  When you think about it, anything you’ve achieved which you’re particularly proud of, required a significant amount of continuous attention and focus to accomplish.  This is true whether it’s the business you’ve built, being a great parent, or having developed a valuable skill like playing an instrument.  Naturally, you can see that when your ability to focus and pay attention is impacted, the gap between you and your goals expands.  When your focus is impaired, your ability to think in an innovative way, solve problems effectively, and perform at a higher level are all sacrificed. 

Annihilate your Time Bandits

Given what we’ve explored and your interest in being more productive, consider these 7 habits/strategies to keep you on track to reach your goals:

Be Intentional

  • Based on the research regarding the illusion of “multi-tasking”, be intentional about focusing on one task at a time rather than juggling multiple tasks.  Give up the illusion that multi-tasking has no downside.  This singular focus will allow you to make fewer mistakes, remember more, and allow you to be more effective with a particular task.

Eliminate Distractions

  • Set yourself up to win in the never-ending “distraction game.”  Be intentional about being effective with your time and focus.  Interruptions rob your future.  Eliminate any distractions possible by closing your email when not needed, putting your phone away or on “do not disturb,” closing your office door if you have one, using a landline to reduce the seduction of your cell phone, posting a sign on your closed door indicating your availability (if others need to know). 

Reduce Interruptions

  • Interruptions are huge time drains.  Do the math.  Set a goal to eliminate just 2 interruptions a workday.  This allows you to gain back almost 1 hour a day which is about 250 more hours a year!

Take Inventory

  • If you’re an average American, you spend, about 3 hours and 15 minutes per day with your phone and touch it an average of 2617 times every 24 hours!  Take inventory of the amount of time you’re using your phone for various tasks.  How much do you use for conversations, text, social media?   What other features of your phone capture your time, attention and focus?  What impact is this having on your productivity at work?  Based on your answers, make any personal changes you feel necessary.

Monitor Time Spent

  • Keep a time log so you have an awareness of your distractions. Is it others? Your email? Your phone? The allure of social media? Fear of Missing Out?  Eliminate what’s not working.  Remember, it’s costing you your freedom.

Challenge Yourself

  • Make it a game.  Set a timer and challenge yourself to work for that amount of time without interruptions or distractions.  You know the distractions we mean.  Just a quick peek at your emails or texts.  A quick post or check-in on social media.  As time goes on, gamify your focus by increasing these time periods to reach new levels and note your progress.

Review and Rectify

  • Consider the workday starts the night before.  Take 5 minutes at the end of the workday to evaluate your progress in the area of interruptions and distractions.  Set your intentions for the next day in these areas to continue to improve.  Be mindful of what you eat and drink, and the amount of sleep you get the night before.  These decisions impact your energy and ability to focus the next day and impact your resolve to improve your work habits.  

There is no doubt we all have our share of potential distractions and unproductive habits.  Some of these distractions occur externally like the demands and requests we get from others.  The other distractions come from within and are generated by our self-talk, habits, and wandering mind.  In either case, these are the sources of our “time bandits” that rob us of our valuable time and our ability to ultimately feel accomplished and achieve our goals.  The good news is, you have the power to decide whether you manage these bandits, or allow them to manage you.


Ron Patulski