Why your to-do list fails you—and how to fix it

Interruptions at work are inevitable. You might receive an urgent email from a student, stay late in a meeting, or get peppered with last-minute asks.

But these daily disruptions add up. Some studies estimate that employees are interrupted an average of every three minutes and it takes up to 23 minutes to recover from an interruption.

Unplanned breaks hurt productivity and employee engagement, according to a paper recently published in the Journal of Applied Psychology. To minimize these negative effects, you should anticipate potential interruptions and plan for them, the study found. Researchers call this strategy contingency planning.

Traditional time management, on the other hand, advises us to plan our day around the tasks we want to accomplish—not the disruptions we might face, Christina Le Beau writes for the University of California, Los Angeles' Anderson Review.

The researchers tracked 187 employees from different industries for two weeks. The researchers asked participants each day to rate how often they engage in specific behaviors on scale of 1 ("not at all) to 7 ("to a great extent"). Time management planners gave high numbers to statements like, "I prioritized the tasks I want to accomplish today." While contingent planners gave high numbers to this statement: "I made my plans flexible today to cover any unforeseen events."

The researchers found strong correlations between how participants planned out their day and their job satisfaction and output. Employees who used traditional time management were more engaged and productive when they had few interruptions. But contingent planners were engaged and productive no matter the level of interruption.  

On days where interruptions were high, traditional strategies were ineffective at promoting engagement and productivity, according to the study. Those high-interruption days happened nearly 20% of the time.  

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How to practice contingent planning

Spend a few minutes planning your day with interruptions in mind, recommend the researchers. Determine whether you should expect any interruptions, what kinds of interruptions to expect, and how frequently you'll be interrupted.

If you expect zero or few interruptions, follow traditional time management rules and set a to-do list that prioritizes certain tasks. But if you are interrupted, learn from those disruptions and use them to inform tomorrow's game plan.  

If you expect frequent interruptions, set a realistic to-do list that gives you enough time to handle the unexpected. And build in blocks of time to refocus after an interruption.

You can also try to minimize any interruptions in your work day, the researchers recommend. Set specific time frames to check and respond to emails, or use an app to limit your time online.

For most leaders, interruptions come in the form of questions or problems from employees or colleagues. Problems are an everyday occurrence for leaders, writes Tom Rocklin, a retired vice president of student life. While "some come in hot and others come in cool," don't take the issue's temperature at face value, he advises. As a leader, it's your responsibility to assess whether the problem is an emergency or not.

You can help your employees assess their own problems and minimize your workflow interruptions with a list of commonly asked questions answered, recommends Jonathan Denn, a productivity expert. A list of frequently asked questions can lead to fewer, and better questions, he argues.

Your list might include:

  • What haven’t you thought of?
  • What’s the next best solution?
  • How does this advance the mission or goals of the business?
  • Does it have to be done by me?
  • Does it have to be now?

"Now they know how you think so they will not knock on your door until they go through the list," says Denn. "Your direct reports can do the same thing for their direct reports. It’s a document that shows how they run their department" (Le Beau, Anderson Review, 9/11; Vozza, Fast Company, 8/16).

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