In Time Management, Anticipating Interruptions Can Boost Engagement and Productivity

In Time Management, Anticipating Interruptions Can Boost Engagement and Productivity

Time management is a perennial challenge for any professional. As HR practitioners’ roles become more strategic, they find themselves under increasing pressure mitigate the time costs of non-strategic activities, as well as to figure out ways to improve time management throughout their organizations. A recent study led by London Business School professor Michael Parke points toward a possible solution.

Parke and one of his co-authors, Justin Weinhardt from the University of Calgary, discussed their findings in a recent Harvard Business Review article. Workers juggling competing demands on their time, they explain, can significantly increase their engagement and productivity at work by moving away from the traditional time management approach, toward a new approach they call “contingent planning.” In this type of planning, people “consider the possible disruptions or interruptions they may face in their work day and devise a plan to address them if they occur.”

“Contingent planning is less commonly used than time-management planning because individuals frequently make plans that overestimate how much they will get done and underestimate (or fail altogether) to account for how their work will be disrupted,” they add.

The researchers found that either type of planning positively impacted daily engagement and daily productivity in the absence of significant interruptions. However, when employees faced many interruptions in the course of a day, only contingent planning had a positive impact.

Talent Daily reached out to Parke for more ideas about how professionals can practice contingent planning in their day-to-day work, and he provided the following five tips:

  1. Plan daily: Most of the employees observed in the study made their daily plans the night before or in the morning, in keeping with longstanding best practices. This behavior needs to be consistent, however, to be successful.
  2. Anticipate your work environment as well as your work: Contingent planning requires more foresight than traditional time management; do this by examining the success of your past strategies. How did you do on your earlier plans? When you did not meet your goals, what got in the way? How likely are those interruptions to recur today? This kind of planning also involves anticipating the needs of the other people with whom you are working.
  3. Keep the to-do list manageable: When we feel like we’re making progress on our goals, we feel great, but one of the problems with planning is that people overestimate how much they can get done because they fail to account for self-driven distractions (e.g., fatigue, mind-wandering) and interruptions. When people consider these factors, they set more realistic goals and develop better perceptions of their progress, which helps people stay engaged, Parke explained.
  4. Protect yourself against foreseeable distractions: You can protect time for focused tasks like writing and thinking, as Parke does, by doing them first thing in the morning, when most people haven’t shown up to the office and the busyness of the workday is not yet in full swing. Turning off your email and other incoming communications during this time can also help guard against getting sidetracked.
  5. Consider “banking” work: One strategy people use to plan for contingencies is to purposely work beyond their daily goals in anticipation of interruptions to come. In other words, if you can get a head start on tomorrow’s work today, you’re better prepared to handle a distraction-filled workday. This is especially helpful when you know tomorrow is going to be one of those days.

If you’re having trouble getting started with contingent planning, you can get in the habit one step at a time. Begin by blocking out time to isolate yourself and focus on planned tasks, either by working from home, closing your office door, or just logging out of instant message apps and turning off email alerts. Focus on high-priority tasks during these times and think ahead about how you will handle the interruptions that do arise.