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The Art of Office Productivity

Take a quick second and ask yourself where do you go when you want to be super productive? The kitchen? The backyard? The train? Maybe it doesn’t matter where, so long as it’s early in the morning or late at night? Any of these answers sound familiar? I know that when I have to be productive, I have to be at my dinner table where I can spread out all my important documents. Ever feel frustrated that each day you go to the office to be productive and yet when you leave, you feel like nothing was accomplished?

Jason Fried, co-founder and president of 37signals – makers of tools like Basecamp, Highrise and Campfire – has a radical new approach to getting work done at the office that I want to share with you. In a TEDx talk, Fried explains his interesting theory why we aren’t more productive while at work. According to Fried, work is a lot like sleep: to get a good night’s sleep (or a productive day’s work) you can’t be interrupted. He believes that “People really need long stretches of uninterrupted time to get something done. You cannot ask somebody to be creative in fifteen minutes, and really think about a problem. You may have a quick idea, but to be in deep thought about a problem and really consider a problem carefully you need long stretches of interrupted time.”

When was the last time you had 3 hours of uninterrupted time to really be productive at work? It’s pretty rare, right? Fried believes that today “People go to work and they’re basically trading in their work day for a series of work moments…it’s like the front door of the office is a Cuisinart and you walk in and your day is shredded to bits. ‘Cuz you have fifteen minutes here and thirty minutes there, and then something else happens are you’re pulled off your work… and then you’ve got twenty minutes, and then it’s lunch, and then you have something else to do…and before you know it, it’s like five pm. And you look back at your day and you realize that you didn’t get anything done. ”So, how can we expect people to work well if they are being constantly interrupted all day at the office? Fried believes that the two largest distractions for employees are managers and meetings, what he cutely refers to as the “M&Ms”.

The problem with managers is that they interrupt employees at times when they are trying to get meaningful work done. Odds are they will unintentionally interrupt employees at the wrong time. Fried paints the following example, “you are trying to do something that they are paying you to do, they [managers] interrupt you – and that’s kinda bad” because like sleep, it’s almost impossible to pick up right where you left off. It takes time to get back in the groove.

The other largest productivity killer is the meeting, “because meetings aren’t work, meetings are places you go to talk about thing you’re supposed to being later.” According to Fried, meetings have two major issues: they interrupt people from their work, and they procreate. When was the last time a spontaneous meeting was called where everyone was ready to stop doing what they were working on and go sit in a meeting? Or how many times does one meeting turn into three or four, when it could have easily been solved by several people in a few minutes? They are a huge productivity killer.

What’s the solution? Fried has several suggestions to help make the office a place people go to when they need to be productive. In his talk Fried jokingly suggests a no talk afternoon. While it may seem a bit silly, giving four interrupted hours once a month is a huge gift for employees. Another suggestion is trying to limit conversations, face to face interactions, meetings – what he calls “active communication.” Instead, he suggests replacing it with more “passive communications” – such as email, IMs, or collaboration products. While some may call these distractions, Friend believes they aren’t that bad. He calls them voluntary distractions – “they are distracting at a time of your own choice and your own choosing. You can quit the email app. You can’t quit your boss. You can quit IM. You can’t hide your manager. You can put these things away and then you can be interrupted on your own schedule at your own time, when you’re available.” The last piece of advice he has is to limit the meetings. He believes if managers lay off a little bit, they will see some pretty exciting results.

Tried any of these strategies? If so, how have they worked out for you?

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