Two recent posts (Focus, Focus, Focus and Breakthrough Thinking on Worker Productivity) talk about the effects of multitasking and interruptions. Spread a person across 4-5 tasks and interrupt her with phone calls, drop-ins, emails, beeps, and meetings and pretty soon no real work is accomplished.

Some people – managers and technical staff – try to compensate by coming in early or staying late, when they hope for quite, uninterrupted time. Unfortunately, for the success of the stay-late-come-early strategy, people end up doing both: they come early and stay late. Some work from home or come in on weekends. This adds up to longer hours. And prolonged overtime is a killer. Tired people simply make more mistakes.

Many corporate cultures tacitly or explicitly encourage long hours.

How can we break out of the pattern?

Don’t spread people too thin. The TOC folks will tell you that projects using the same resources actually finish sooner when they aren’t run in parallel. If you have doubts, see the data on context-switching (March 21). Or look at this paper on Frank Patrick’s site.

Ban overtime. An occasional short stretch of 10-hour days won’t hurt anyone. Prolonged overtime has a high price. Work hard for 40 hours a week and then go home.

Establish a Meeting Free Day. Some groups agree that they will not schedule or attend meetings on a particular day of the week. The Meeting Free Day is for heads-down work, and heads-down work on.

If you can’t pull off a day, establish office hours. Let people know when you’ll be available and when your door will be closed. When people know that you’ll be available from 8-10 and 3-5, in most cases they can hold questions. You may want to let people know what the exceptions are, too: fire, emergency, system crash… you choose. This goes for management and technical staff.

Make meetings effective. I see many organizations where people are in meetings for 5 – 8 hours a day. Usually they report that not much is accomplished in these meeting. So when they meeting ends without a resolution, the group agrees to meet again. When do people get work done? Make sure your meetings are productive. Productive meetings have a purpose and an agenda. Only the people who must be present to achieve the purpose of the meeting attend the meeting. No hangers on. And unless there is a direct on-call responsibility, turn off beepers, pagers, and cell-phones when the meeting starts.

Get rid of status meetings. Try daily 15-minute stand-up meetings to report on progress, obstacles and plans for the day. Problem solving can happen as needed, with only the people needed after the stand-up meeting.

Now try it. Breath. Close your door (if you have one, otherwise put out your Do Not Disturb sign). Think.