Seminary Time Waster #3: Interruptions and Task Switching.
The kind of study you are doing at seminary requires deliberate and sustained thinking—the kind which is impossible in high-interruption environments. You should aim in your study time for long, uninterrupted blocks of time. I’d recommend a minimum of 90 minutes. You should have enough time to get “into the zone” of the assignment or task you’re working on. Your productivity goes way up when you’re in those intense, creative mental flows.
By contrast, in high-interruption environments, you can’t get anything done, because you can’t get gain any momentum. It’s like a runner being stopped every 100 yards to have a conversation. In corporate America, a staggering 25% of all work time is spent on handling interruptions and switching from one task to another, and with all of the mental and physical re-arranging necessary. After 40% of these interruptions, people don’t go back to what they were doing. (Source: The Four Hour Work Week)
The worst interrupter of all time: the cell phone.
The cell phone is an evil invention that—unless you manage it wisely—allows anyone in the world to interrupt you at any time. Availability is one thing, slavery is another.
Set times when you are unavailable. When you are studying, praying, and with your family, your cell phone should be off or ignorable.
I found that every time I tried to watch a movie, the phones, both home and cell, would ring off the hook. I used to feel obligated to answer them and could never get through a movie. Ridiculous. Now I ignore them. One strategy I like: leave the cell phone on vibrate in another room. I can’t hear it ring, but when I pause the movie for snacks or a bathroom break, I can check for missed calls or messages—if I want—and return them—if I want.
Spouses and availability
Communicate with your spouse about your need to avoid interruptions when studying. If you prioritize her needs in the ways that you should, then she’ll most likely protect you as much as she can. She can call if it’s really urgent.
Try this: when you go to the library to study, call her: “Hey hon, I’m going to be working on my paper for the next two hours. Need anything? Doing ok? How’s the baby? Love you.” Then silence the phone and go to work.
Use your free secretary
I love this idea: Let your voice mail be your virtual assistant. Didn’t know that a FREE secretary came with that cell phone, did you? It’s all a matter of perspective. Check messages when you want to. Return only messages that really need a return call. Try to train people who communicate with you to leave the information you need on the voice mail. “Hey, call me back” is not an acceptable message. Let them know.
You might try a voicemail greeting like this: “This is Mark. I’m not available now. If you have information for me, please leave it after the beep, or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you’d like a call back, please leave your name, number and the purpose of your call. I generally return calls in the early afternoon. Due to family time, I do not return voice mails on Saturdays. Thanks for calling.”
You get the idea. You need boundaries, so set them and enforce them. Other people will not respect your boundaries unless you do.
When you leave messages for others, give them a specific time to call you back. This avoids phone tag. “This is Mark, returning your call. My number is 555-5555. The best time to reach me is between 3 and 5.”
Finally, let messages pile up and then return them all at a set time. This is known in the time management world as “batching.” The idea is to let simple, repetitive activities to pile up, and then to tackle them all at once. This minimizes time lost from task switching. Returning phone calls, for instance. If people leave messages for you while you’re in class or studying, don’t reply immediately to them; let them stack up and then do them all at once. Email replies can be batched this way. Paying bills, filing, reading/sorting, dealing with snail mail… any simple repetitive tasks.
Other quick ideas that have helped me:
- All new email notifications are off: no icon, no ding, no nothing. I check when I want, period.
- My home phone ringer is now permanently off. If it’s not important enough to leave a message, it’s not important enough to waste my time. If it’s urgent enough, they know where I live and can track down my cell number.
- All email notifications from social networking sites are off. Facebook when you want to.
- When I really need to be uninterrupted, I go where people can’t find me. Usually the library. I get drop-in interruptions way too much at my office at church.
- At seminary, you should beware of the “social corners” of the library. You know, where the gabby extroverts like to hang out and not work. Don’t go there. Socialize when it’s time to socialize; work when it’s time to work.
Be Unavailable. Like Jesus.
You may think I’m just a cold-hearted jerk who hates talking to people. Remember that all my suggestions here are not meant for you to slavishly copy. I want you to think about your life and how you can best obey the command to “make the most of your time.” (Ephesians 5:16)
Other people will not understand or respect your very great need for sustained theological reflection or uninterrupted time in prayer.
Learn to set those boundaries now, and learn to make others adjust to them. Jesus did not ask permission to go away by himself and pray. He just did it. When people needed him, they just had to deal with it until he got back.
I think that’s a pretty good example.