Innovation in 11 Minutes? I Don't Think So.

There’s been a great deal of press over the past couple of weeks regarding costs of email, interruptions and distractions in the workplace. This prompted me to do a comprehensive read of a landmark study on multi-tasking and distractions published by Gloria Mark and Victor Gonzalez at the University of California. It’s fascinating reading, and two key findings jumped out at me:

1) People often feel like victims to interruptions, but workers interrupt themselves as often as they are interrupted. We stop to check email, make phone calls, chat with colleagues across the cubical wall, switch to other projects on ouf desks and computers.

2) Eleven minutes is the average amount of time we spend thinking about any one issue consecutively. We work on an average of 10 core projects per day, spending a total of 33 minutes per project. Yet we don’t even spend that 33 minutes consecutively. Instead, we frequently switch from one project to another. The actual average “work segment” is very small: 11 minutes.

How far can any of us get by problem solving for 11-minute segments of thought? Not very. I say that our lack of focus is costing us our competitive edge as individuals, and as companies. As individuals, it’s our problem solving abilities that make us truly indispensable. We are the only ones who can think as we do, who have the unique collection of experiences, skills and talents that come together when we think deeply about issues and problems.

As companies, when the knowledge workers we’ve invested so heavily to recruit, hire and train don’t take time to think, we fall behind on innovation, and fail to solve problems effectively. Take the current plight of American car manufacturers, who seem to have been taken by surprise on the need for fuel-efficient vehicles. The LA Times reported huge losses as our love affair with trucks and SUV’s ground to a screeching halt. How many Hummers and SUVs did General Motors produce in the last year that will sit on car dealers’ lots unsold? What were our knowledge workers doing while their competitors in Europe and Japan surged ahead in the development of hydrogen-celled vehicles? Were our knowledge workers lacking in the skill and talent to anticipate the rising costs of fuel and create innovative solutions? I doubt that. The greatest minds in the world simply can’t innovate in 11 minute increments of thought.

It’s not easy to pull away from the frenetics of the workplace, the constant pull of email chatter, and the satisfaction of quickly problem solving a bunch of small, easy things. It’s scary to take time to focus; we fear that if we don’t instantly respond to the mini-crises that pop up all day, our customer, client, boss or colleague will go somewhere else—to someone who is available 24-7. The reality is we can’t afford NOT to take time to concentrate. You must resist the tyranny of the urgent, and know, when you close your door, or put on those Bose headphones to go deep on a problem, daily—that this is the greatest contribution you can make to your company—and, as a result, your own career. You will become indispensable for your knowledge, mind and results.

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