All productivity advice will tell you that unscheduled interruptions are the enemy of Getting Things Done. A ringing phone, a WhatsApp notification, a knock on the door with someone (heaven forbid) wanting to actually talk to you in person…basically, anything that could interrupt your Pomodoro is to be avoided at all costs.

I bought into this for years. But now, I’m not so sure.

The downside of scheduling

Let’s say there are three conversations I need to have today. Because I follow good productivity principles, I batch two of them together: an hour at 11am, and an hour at 12pm. Another one I couldn’t batch because the other person already had something scheduled for that time, so it’s booked for 2pm.

At 10.45am I finish a task, but it doesn’t really seem worth starting another one because I know I have a call coming up soon.

At 11.40am my first meeting ends, and I’m left with 20 minutes before my next call so – again – it’s not worth getting too deeply into anything. Then just before midday, I get a message saying that we’ll need to start at 12.10pm because the other person is overrunning.

At 1.10pm we’ve overrun slightly but we’re done. Now I have 50 minutes before the next scheduled meeting, which is frustratingly not quite enough time to go for a run.

Between just three scheduled meetings, I’ve ended up losing 45 minutes of potential focus time — and been left with another block of time that I can’t use in the way I want to.

The unscheduled alternative

What if, instead, I said to each of these three people: “just call me when you’re free”. I could also give some kind of steer like “early afternoon is probably best”.

The advantages might be:

  • Clearly, I don’t end up with annoying bits of time waiting for calls to start – saving me 45 minutes
  • The other person might also save the equivalent amount of time on their side
  • The conversations will probably be quicker than they would be if we both knew we had an hour set aside for them, saving yet more time. (The phenomenon of calls expanding to fill the time blocked off in the calendar is real.)
  • I have the flexibility to turn my phone off and focus, or go for a run, or do whatever else I want to do without having to watch the clock.

What about interruptions?

The argument against this approach is that the phone could ring just when I’m in the middle of a period of deep focus and on the verge of solving Hilbert’s eleventh problem (or even one of my own problems). Isn’t it better to have parts of the day when you know you can focus, and other parts when you know you’ll be collaborating with others?

The solution is simple: close yourself off from interruptions when you’re focusing on something. “Call me whenever you’re free” isn’t a promise to answer at any time: just silence your phone and turn off all notifications while you’re in the middle of something, then call back when you’re ready.

Two drawbacks of throwing out the schedule

My brave new unscheduled world has two disadvantages that I can’t get away from.

Firstly, the ping-pong effect: they call you, you don’t answer, you call back, they don’t answer…

It happens. It’s frustrating, and scheduling a time gets around it. But in my experience, volleys of more than two missed calls are rare – and frustrations of scheduled meetings (like starting late or the other person forgetting) are no less common.

Secondly, this only really works for one-on-one conversations. If you need to get multiple people together, scheduling is the only realistic answer. Fair enough, but as multi-person calls tend to be more longer and more annoying, it’s worth trying to minimise these anyway.

Finding a balance

It’s definitely not a coincidence that I’ve come to this revelation after months stuck working on my own at home – dealing with the weird paradox of being more isolated than ever, yet having more scheduled meetings than usual.

But I think it’s just exacerbated something I’d already started noticing: productivity principles are great, but they risk stripping all the spontaneity, flexibility and serendipity out of life. I’m not going to stop keeping parts of each day free for focused work – but outside those times, I welcome my phone ringing.

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4 thoughts on “A piece of universal productivity advice that doesn’t work (for me)

  1. The dreaded random phonecalls. The older I get the more I have difficulty switching between topics and like to have my notes /info to hand when dealing with issues. So what I have been doing is ‘batching’ my phonecalls with a follow-up mainly at times I can be in the office. So calls at 8.30-9.30 then at lunchtime or end of day 5 -6.
    Seems to be working but can still get ping pong altho Im probably not as busy as Rob.

    1. Batching is a great solution, especially if you can give yourself big blocks of time in between like you do. For meetings that have to be scheduled (like those with multiple participants), I always batch them together where I can. For one-on-ones, I counter-intuitively find it less disruptive for them to be completely unscheduled – but I see why that doesn’t work for everyone, and it wouldn’t have worked for me in the past.

  2. This is an interesting post Rob, it made me realise how much I DO value having calls in the diary at specific times. I’m generally pretty comfortable slotting in “mindless tasks” in the 5-15 minute windows if a call finishes early so don’t find it that much of a problem. 

    But I think more importantly is a second-order benefit I’ve found (that I didn’t initially consider) which is that I’ve developed a reputation with my clients/ contractors of always being bang on time when starting calls with people.

    Over time, they have shifted their behaviour too (rather than joining a ..:03 they’re on the call at :00) and it gives us, I think, a shared sense of professionalism. As such, we get through things much quicker and there’s less waiting around.

    By comparison, my former boss was always late for calls and as a result the first few minutes would always be spent apologising, or others coming back from getting a cup of tea, or whatever. As a result, the whole company got lax with punctuality and it became a drag.

    Have you experienced any of these downsides in the “call me when you’re free” approach?

    1. Hey Sam! I don’t find “call me when you’re free” to be incompatible with timekeeping, because you can’t be late when there’s no agreed time. But in general I’ve definitely noticed that being exactly on time for an agreed appointment makes it more likely that the other person will be in future, and in organisations the culture around timekeeping comes down from the top. I can’t remember who, but there was some famous executive who started all his meetings at odd times (like 9:53) because it gave the impression that exact timing was important so no-one was late.

      Thanks for commenting!

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