just a dude abiding

on blinking lights and wasting time

or how I learned to quit being interrupted and regain my productivity

Hello, my name is Tanner, and I’m addicted to blinking lights.  The addiction costs me hours of my life every week, and it’s time to quit.  From the minute I wake up to my screeching blinking alarm clock, until I turn off the TV, put down the phone, and go to sleep I’m blasted by little blinking lights. In every part of our life we’re conditioned to pay attention to bright blinking lights, microwaves, fire alarms, emergency vehicles, phones, alarm clocks, status lights on every gadget under the sun, so why should our offices be any different.    But how do you even start trying to break a lifetime of psychological conditioning?  I set out on a quest, a quest to regain my productivity at the office from the blinking lights.  For one week I did everything I could to disable all of the blinking lights I’d found controlling my time, and in the process figured out how to regain control of my own time.

I work in your average office, working average hours (8am-5pm, 5 days a week).  I’m surrounded all day by a half dozen blinking lights.  Thanks to email, office phone, personal email, iCal, and my wonderful BlackBerry, rss readers, etc, my day consists of bouncing my attention from one blinking light to another.  To top it off I get all of my work (and personal) email forwarded to my phone, so I get hit twice when I’m at work, often separated by a minute or less.  Let’s have a brief example of what occurred daily when I was at my desk.
Oh, my email icon (on a mac) has a red badge on it, I need to check my email.  My voicemail light is blinking, better drop what I’m doing and listen.  My cellphone is blinking (or vibrating), I must have a text message, personal email, or voicemail, or just another copy of that email I read less than five minutes ago.  Ohh, 10 new stories in my feed reader, I can at least skim them real quick.
The straw that broke the camel’s back, was counting how many emails I got one day.  The day that I counted, I received over 30 emails.  That day was not extraordinarily busy and I didn’t even include text messages, personal emails, phone calls, or rss triage sessions.  At this point I should also mention how compulsively I checked my email, if the little badge popped up, I HAD to check my email, that second, and possibly respond, or else catch myself continually glancing at the little red icon. Combine that with the latest research showing it takes on average 64 seconds to regain your concentration after an email interruption and you have a recipe for non-productivity. Some simple math shows that I was losing an average of 32 minutes of productivity just regaining my concentration, add in a minute or two actually dealing with whatever interrupted me and you’ve got a full hour of my day vanishing down the hole of non-productivity.  

What’s worse, thanks to the little red badge, or a blinking phone, even if I managed to have the will power to ignore the new email or phone call that just came in, I’m anxious and distracted until I stop and look at the new message.  But thanks to my little experiment, in the last week I’ve learned how to regain those lost minutes and hours, without losing my connectivity to the rest of the office.  Now on to what I did that made such a big difference.
  1. I disabled any audible mail, or calendar sounds.  (I left pop-up alerts active on my calendar as it’s easy for me to get distracted and miss meetings!)
  2. I found a wonderful (Mac only) application, that hides the unread mail indicator from Mail.app.  ( Mail Badger ) This allows me to only check my email when I am between tasks and not have a steadily increasing little red number staring at me all morning.
  3. While I’m at my desk, I set my phone to a non-vibrate, non-blink, mode for all messages.  This dodges the “double email” problem mentioned earlier, as well as keeping me from dropping concentration to check a personal email.  To increase the effect (and due to an odd issue where the screen randomly brightens as it charges) I flip my cell phone screen side down on my desk.
  4. I started screening my calls if I’m in the middle of a task.  Obviously some calls you answer right away, but some of them you let go to voicemail.  I’d done this for a while with my cell-phone, but doing it with my office phone as well has made a huge difference. While this doesn’t eliminate the distraction, it does make it as minimal as possible.
  5. I taped over my voicemail light on my desk phone.  It doesn’t completely hide the bright red blinking light.  It still serves as a reminder to check (or act on) whatever call came in, but again it minimizes the distraction as best as possible.
Obviously some of these steps won’t work, or don’t apply to everyone.  I’m still an addict, despite this little experiment.  But thanks to a few simple tricks, I have regained my productivity from the continual blinking lights.  Have other suggestions?  Put them in the comments!