According to 37signals cofounder Jason Fried, the reason we don’t get work done at work is because of interruptions.
To understand why interruptions at work are so toxic, Fried explains in his 2010 TEDxMidwest talk, we just need to think about sleep. Sleep has stages: we have to move through the early ones to get to that satisfying, deep, regenerative sleep. In the same way, deep, reflective, thoughtful work requires long stretches of uninterrupted time.
“Does anyone here expect someone to sleep well if they’re interrupted all night? I don’t think anyone would say yes. Why do we expect people to work well if they’re being interrupted all day at the office?”
As a result, our work days turn into a series of not-so-productive work moments, punctuated by meetings, phone calls, and questions from coworkers. Creative people like programmers, writers, and designers barely have time to start the wheels turning before someone else is grabbing for their attention.
The culprits, says Fried, are M&Ms: managers and meetings. Managers are “people whose job it is to interrupt people,” and they’re constantly checking in to see how we’re doing. Worse, they often call meetings where people don’t do work, but rather discuss work that they plan on doing. Facebook and Twitter, denounced as distractions by some corporations, have one key difference from M&Ms: they’re voluntary. We check them when we choose; they’re like modern-day smoke breaks.
This issue of at-work productivity is something that Fried has long been fascinated with, and he’s spent years asking people where they get their best work done. Unsurprisingly, it’s in places without M&Ms: on the plane, at home, or early in the morning. He proposes three solutions to bring some of this quiet back to work:
- No-talk Thursdays. Try it, and see what happens. You can always discuss the results in your Friday meeting.
- More passive communication. Instead of phone calls and meetings, communicate more via email and collaboration software. Like Facebook and Twitter, these create voluntary interruptions in your day.
- Cancel your next meeting. Watch as the world doesn’t end.
All this explains why Fried is a fan of remote work, which he talks about in his upcoming book Remote. The distractions at home, like food and TV, are voluntary, and M&Ms interrupt you less when you’re remote.
“Businesses are spending all this money on this place called the office and they’re making people go to it all the time, yet people don’t do work in the office. What is that about?”
To learn more, watch Fried’s TED talk:
Editor’s Note: Tech Cocktail is doing a fireside chat with Jason Fried in Chicago on December 4, 2013 – come see him and you’ll be able to ask him questions during this interactive Sessions event.