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.