When I speak to knowledge workers about solving information overload, I mention some fairly hi-tech solutions: software products that prevent, reduce or help combat the infoglut they all struggle with. And while those are useful, some of the most effective solutions are entirely lo-tech. I already wrote here about No Email Day; let me now tell you about the solution called Quiet Time.
How to disconnect and (maybe) win a Nobel prize
As everyone knows, William Shockley won a Nobel Prize as one of the team that invented the Point Contact Transistor at Bell Labs. As many don’t know, he did not invent that first transistor; his subordinates did it in his absence (researching the History of Computing taught me to doubt the official history!). What Shockley then did is invent by himself the far more practical Junction Transistor, and the way he did this was to lock himself up in a hotel room for a number of days, only emerging when he had the invention all ready to publish. It took this ultimate act of withdrawal from the busy life of both workplace and home to enable his Nobel-grade mind to get in gear and succeed. We call this form of withdrawal “Quiet Time”; it may not win you a Nobel, but it definitely will improve your productivity and creativity.
Quiet Time in the information overload context is the conscious act of securing isolation from interruptions for at least hours at a time, in order to enable your mind to concentrate and excel. I’m not talking about occasional time out; this is about a structured, recurrent, pre-scheduled sequence of quiet intervals, week after week. For this to work, you must eliminate interruptions of any kind for the designated time, including:
- Incoming email, instant messenger, and all other alerts.
- Phone calls, on any devices you have.
- Coworkers popping into your office to ask questions or just chew the rag.
- Self-interruptions, like surfing the web for fun, or checking your social networks.
More on how to implement this below.
Proof that Quiet Time is good for you and your team
The best documented implementation of Quiet Time by a group has been done by Prof. Leslie Perlow of the University of Michigan, who had conducted a three morning per week Quiet Time experiment in a development team at a large computer hardware firm in the US. She described her work in detail in her book Finding Time. The effect was to significantly shorten the Time-to-Market of the printer being designed by the team, an effect attributed by them directly to the fact that they could concentrate and think during those mornings.
Another formal experiment was run by myself when I was Computing Productivity Manager at Intel corporation. I had an engineering group of 300 people in the US assign one morning per week as Quiet Time for 7 months. The experiment was a success, with people in many job types reporting improvement in their effectiveness, efficiency and quality of life.
Implementing Quiet Time at the group level
Should you want to implement Quiet Time as a group solution, you can reap excellent outcomes – but you need to do it carefully. Let me share some recommendations from my experience:
- Define the rules, the group contract that will govern Quiet Time in your group, up front: How many hours? On what weekday(s)? What will be permitted and what proscribed during the quiet time? How will exceptions be handled? God is in the details! For example, you want to prevent the interruptions of incoming emails, but you don’t – can’t – tell people to turn off their email client: they will likely need to refer to their stored email messages in their archives and folders. This may dictate a decision to use Outlook in Offline mode, or to turn off those Blackberries, during the quiet hours.
- Launch the program in a formal all-hands meeting, preferably as part of a wider program to improve effectiveness and reduce information overload. Use this meeting to explain the rationale and expected benefits. If you need a lecture to put all this in context, I have one you may find suitable.
- Monitor progress and make course corrections as needed. For example, in my pilot at Intel we discovered that people hated the “Do not Disturb” signs we handed them to put on their office doors – the local culture found them unsuitable, and we had to drop this component.
Here are some caveats you (as a manager) need to keep in mind:
- Avoid one-sided edicts. Knowledge workers aren’t robots, and they won’t do what doesn’t make sense to them. You need to involve the group in defining the group contract and the rules of the game, and to ensure you receive their heartfelt buy-in.
- Keep in mind that Quiet Time may not be suited to all people, but that it can benefit almost all of them if you build in some conceptual flexibility. At Intel we found that different people applied the quiet hours in different ways, depending on their job type, work style and personality. Not everyone used the time for creative thinking like William Shockley; some did, while others used it as a respite from job roles requiring constant interaction with others, applying the quiet to restore their balance and get ahead in tasks they fell behind on. Let each individual decide what to do – they know what will help them best in getting their work done!
- Clarify that the disconnection is not absolute. If a crisis develops during the quiet hours, you can’t expect people to refuse to handle it because they’re not supposed to interrupt themselves or their peers. At Intel we had to tell people, halfway through our experiment, that it’s OK to address urgent interrupts – that we trust them to use their common sense to decide when this is appropriate.
- Even if things work out well, there is always the risk of the whole thing decaying back to the bad old ways unless you continue to role model and encourage the new ways.
- Above all, remember that we’re talking here (as in most of my work, I guess) about a Behavior Change at both the individual and group level. This is never a simple thing; you have to overcome inertia and entrenched mindsets, and it can take many months for any changes to stabilize. You will need to be patient and persistent!
How you can apply Quiet Time if your group won’t
Not every organization will have the courage to decree a Quiet Time program. If yours doesn’t, you can still reap part of the benefit by applying the concept to enhance your own productivity in a variety off ways, such as:
- You can block some time slots on your calendar as “thinking time” and avoid accepting meetings and other interactions in them. Don’t overdo it of course, but a few hours a week are doable for most jobs.
- Once the time arrives, forward your phone to voicemail, set your IM to “Do not Disturb”, perhaps even put up a “Busy” sign of some sort on your door, or even use the CubeGuard barrier.
- If coworkers don’t respect your wish for such periodic isolation, consider getting approval to Telecommute one day a week – it’s highly beneficial for numerous reasons, but one advantage is that you are isolated by the very fact of being at home.
- If your situation permits, you could go so far as to emulate managers like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, who are known to take retreat periods away from their normal office – days at a time – to do their thinking.
If you do this, don’t feel like a sneaking criminal – you are benefiting your employer and your coworkers by devoting some of your time to be creative and productive. You should explain what you’re doing to your boss and your subordinates; taking half a day each week to concentrate is something they’re likely to respect, especially if you coordinate the chosen time with their needs from you. And if you’re their boss, encourage them to do the same thing – you are measured on their output, after all!