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Wasting time can make you a star at work

Scratch that New Year’s resolution about avoiding distractions. They’re good for your productivity.
/ Source: Forbes

We were recently in the throes of closing an issue of Forbes magazine when Richard Hyfler, one of our copy editors, mentioned that he had found a tasty new recipe for pesto. No sooner had I gotten back to my desk than my e-mail pinged with a follow-up message from him. “Pesto” was the subject line. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the text below it flash across my screen: “Why are you even reading this? Back to work.”

I laughed out loud, then returned to the business at hand, thinking how pleasant it is to work in the company of creative, good-humored colleagues.

This exchange came to mind when I received a press release shortly before New Year’s for a book about how to improve your productivity. The boldfaced headline on the publicity materials was, “Avoiding Death by To-Do List: 15 Ways to Overcome Overload and Work Smarter in 2012.” It alerted me to a new book by Jason W. Womack called "Your Best Just Got Better: Work Smarter, Think Bigger, Make More," that is coming out in February. To whet my appetite, it listed familiar time management tools that can help us avoid distractions and stay focused on work. Here are some examples:

Set “interrupt me” times. Use these to interact with colleagues and answer e-mails. Have your nose to the grindstone the rest of the time.

Identify the two biggest distractions. This might be the constant ding of e-mails, or employees and colleagues who interrupt and ask for a moment of your time.

Reduce what comes in. For three months, unsubscribe from e-mail newsletters and magazines. After that, resume your subscription to anything you miss.

Keep your smartphone out of bed. That way you won’t be checking your e-mail when you first wake up, and will use your morning more productively, Womack argues.

I suppose this is sensible advice for people who are so stressed out or distracted that they can’t get anything done. But for the rest of us, I disagree with Womack’s premise and with every one of the steps listed above.

Having been self-employed for 23 years and led a very solitary work life (described here) I frankly delight in what Dan Bigman, editor of the Forbes business channel, calls “bouncing around” the office. At Forbes the culture seems to be that we don’t interrupt each other for chit-chat, but when the subject is work we are almost always available for each other.

In fact, an impromptu conversation (meaning not one conducted during what Womack calls “interrupt me” times) I had with Dan in late December, played a major role in shaping my recent blog post, “You Can Get Richer Pinching Pennies Like Warren Buffett.”

Here’s what happened: I mentioned to him in passing that I was planning to write an article about New Year’s resolutions people can actually keep — as opposed to goals that are so difficult to achieve that we tend to abandon them within a month (like losing weight). My idea was to catalog things people could trim from their budgets without even feeling the pinch. Dan recommended that I read "Buffett: The Making of an American Capitalist," Roger Lowenstein’s biography of Warren Buffett. Among other things it includes some wonderful examples of Buffett’s extreme frugality — driven by the notion that small sums compound.

I read the book during a time of great distraction — while vacationing in the California desert with my family during the Christmas holiday — and enjoyed it immensely. Meanwhile, as they occurred to me, I made a list of all the penny pinching steps our family has taken. When I got home, I stitched them together in a post. (I came up with the headline during the flight home.)

As this example illustrates, you can’t schedule inspiration, creativity or innovation. In fact, most of the thinking behind my post took place out of the office. Others have experienced much greater inspiration in the middle of “downtime.” For example, Arthur Fry, a 3M scientist who is now retired, was sitting in his church choir during the 1970s when he conceived of a bookmark that wouldn’t fall out of his hymnal but could be removed when he no longer needed it. That idea led him to develop the Post-it note.

In his autobiography, "Ogilvy on Advertising," David Ogilvy describes a dream in which a baker drives his horse-drawn wagon down a country road. After having the dream, Ogilvy wrote a now-famous Pepperidge Farm bread commercial with just that script.

So scratch that New Year’s resolution about avoiding distractions. They’re good for your productivity.

Smart managers realize that too. Consider the Biopolis — Singapore’s 9-year-old biomedical research hub. Philip Yeo, its mastermind, recruited internationally renowned scientists to come there and be mentors to Singaporean scientists trained abroad. In their Singaporean laboratories these “whales,” as he calls them, have free rein to pursue what they think are great ideas.

Yeo’s advice to managers: Do not assume that because star performers are not within your line of sight that they are not working; sometimes getting out of the usual work environment expands their horizons. Managers who demand that their recruits “be at their feet like slaves of the pharaoh of Egypt won’t get talented people — they’ll get slaves,” he told me in an interview two years ago.

We have since corresponded on subjects of mutual interest — developing human capital, fostering creativity and the pleasures of Singaporean cuisine. Yeo, who reads voraciously, often sends me articles of interest — the kind of thing that Womack might put under the heading of “Reduce what comes in.” Banish the thought!

Rather than reduce the amount of information coming in, we’d be better off simply acknowledging that we can’t possibly read all of it. There will be some benefit to whatever we do absorb.

This approach is already familiar to people who are active on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn; with varying degrees of frequency, they dip into the social media stream without feeling compelled to keep up with the current. If they miss a post, they don’t lose any sleep over it.

And speaking of sleep, I also disagree with Womack’s advice not to take a smartphone to bed. Since I do most of my reading on my cherished iPad, it sits on my night table. And I use it to check my e-mail as soon as I wake up. At that point, I only answer urgent messages, but I might think about others as I get started with my morning routine. For example, on one such morning I noticed the pitch from Womack’s PR agent that inspired this post.

Deborah L. Jacobs, a lawyer and journalist, is the author of "Estate Planning Smarts: A Practical, User-Friendly, Action-Oriented Guide."

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