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Unraveling the Impact of Fragmented Time on Productivity

Unraveling the Impact of Fragmented Time on Productivity

Alyssa Towns
May 30, 2024
Updated on:
May 30, 2024

Unraveling the Impact of Fragmented Time on Productivity
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If your daily routine at work feels something like this: 

  • One-hour morning meeting 
  • 30 minutes responding to Slack messages and emails 
  • 30-minute project meeting 
  • 15 minutes scrolling on your smartphone 
  • 15 minutes sending more emails 
  • Two-hour team meeting and planning session 
  • 30-minute lunch
  • 30-minute status update check-in via Zoom 
  • 30 minutes adding new tasks to Asana projects 
  • One-hour project sync (and responding to emails while attending)

And so on; fragmented time is running your calendar. Keep reading to learn more about fragmented time, its causes, its effects on productivity, and how Clockwise can help.

What is fragmented time?

Nearly four years into “new” ways of working, many organizations are still trying to manage and reduce fragmented time. 

Fragmented time refers to a workplace phenomenon commonly seen across knowledge work, in which we experience the workday split into numerous and tiny fragments filled with small, sometimes insignificant tasks. While occasionally beneficial, these tasks are generally inconsequential regarding bigger-picture goals and progress. Fragmented time prevents knowledge workers from digging into deep work or distraction-free, enhanced concentration. (Read more about the concept of deep work, coined by Cal Newport.) 

What causes fragmented time?

Fragmented time, while limiting and frustrating, can feel like a deep productivity issue without a viable solution. But the truth is, many workplace behaviors enable fragmented time that we can acknowledge and adjust to reduce the amount of time fragmentation in our workdays. 

Meeting overuse and overload

Perhaps unsurprisingly, workdays filled with too many meetings are a primary cause of time fragmentation. Not only do meetings cloud calendars, but they also have a ripple effect on our time. According to Atlassian’s recent research (Workplace Woes: Meetings Edition), 78% of people surveyed said they must attend so many meetings that it’s hard to do actual work. Microsoft’s 2023 Work Trend Index also unveiled too many meetings as the number three productivity disruptor across survey respondents (with inefficient meetings topping the list at number one). 

I imagine many knowledge workers won’t argue against the fact that certain meeting cultures cause fragmented time. However, what causes issues is a calendar packed with meeting blocks and small chunks of intermittent white space in between. 

visual of a fragmented calendar
Fragmented time leaves little room for deep work

How can you get your work done with dispersed and sporadic half-hour or one-hour blocks between constant meetings (especially if you’re leaving meetings with more to-dos?) 

Too many forms of communication 

Digital communication has been and continues to be a focus for many organizations, particularly those sticking with remote and hybrid distributed environments for the long haul. Indeed, digital communication tools like Slack, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Meet, Gmail, Outlook, smartphones, and many others serve important (and essential) purposes. Still, these tools can cause fragmentation problems when we aren't careful.

In The State of Workplace Communication 2024, Forbes reported that many workers spend all day in front of a screen, with 16% of survey respondents spending an average of 21 to 25 hours per week using digital communication tools. In the same survey, 60% of survey respondents indicated that digital communication increases feelings of burnout. 

Similar to meetings, communication tools aren’t necessarily the issue when experiencing fragmented time (although using too many tools can be problematic). The challenge lies in the following:

  • Monitoring many communication channels (email, chat, meetings, project management tools, etc.) 
  • Completing various small tasks dispersed across these communication methods 
  • Feeling an actual or perceived sense of urgency around being available across all of these channels all the time (or using your time in between your meeting-heavy workday to catch up and be “present”) 

Here’s an example: Suppose my manager sends me an email with a task to complete. I start the task, then send her a Slack DM with a question about the task. She’s in the middle of a meeting but doesn’t want to disrupt my work time, so she searches for the original email she sent me to refresh her memory of the details. Meanwhile, I respond to four other Slack notifications. I start a new task for my colleague. My manager answers my Slack DM. I don’t have time to read it because I must attend another meeting.

See the problem? 

Lack of adequate planning 

At Clockwise, we’re big fans of time blocking, and for good reasons. Time blocking—a simple time management technique for deciding what to work on and scheduling time to do it on your calendar—offers many benefits, including better control of your to-do list, more time for deep work (or Focus Time), less procrastination, better work-life balance, and less context switching (more on that later). As part of time blocking, you can batch your tasks or group similar tasks together to boost your focus even more. (Hint: clear goals improve your optimization abilities here!) 

Most importantly, time blocking or planning how to spend your workday in advance allows you to better prepare for those time blocks between meetings. Fragmented time sometimes results from tackling your calendar hour-by-hour and determining how best to fill the white space as it arises rather than approaching your time with a (mostly) unwavering plan of attack. 

For example, if I hop off a virtual meeting and have one hour before my next one, I’d prefer to have pre-decided what I’ll work on during that time block so I can take a quick break after the meeting and immediately jump into my next item. If I don’t decide this ahead of time, it’s easy to get sucked into Slack DMs, responding to emails and post-meeting follow-ups, or browsing social media, all of which might not need my immediate attention. (Talk about multitasking.) 

The effects of fragmented time on productivity

If you’re familiar with the causes of fragmented time in the workplace, you might also be familiar with the overall effects. Which of these do you experience? 

Lost time due to context switching 

Context switches (a computer science term) are a high-cost productivity killer that consumes fragmented time for every meal. It is the urge to shift from one task to another unrelated project or task, and this transition doesn’t happen as quickly as we think. According to the Workgeist Report ‘21, survey respondents reported spending 36 minutes per day switching between online tools and applications, with another 9.5 minutes on average spent achieving a good workflow post-switching apps. 

Cal Newport summarized the impact of context switching well in a piece for The New Yorker. He wrote, “A never-ending stream of new messages and calendars clogged with meetings force us to constantly switch our attention from one target to another, creating a debilitating feeling of mental fatigue and overload, and leaving little mental space for sustained effort on important objectives.”

The more you embrace a fragmented calendar, the more likely you lose time and brain power to context switching. 

Emphasis on shallow work over Focus Time

Fragmented time promotes shallow work and leaves little room for deep work, or what Clockwise calls Focus Time. First, let’s take a look at these terms and what they mean:

  • In his book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Cal Newport coined deep work. It refers to “Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”
  • Newport defines shallow work as “noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend not to create much value in the world and are easy to replicate.”
  • Focus Time refers to two or more hours of uninterrupted work during which you dedicate your undivided attention to a task or project. 

Deep work and Focus Time go hand in hand: You can use (and need) Focus Time to dive into deep work tasks such as developing a business strategy, analyzing complex data for patterns, learning how to code, and more. 

Shallow work includes checking email, responding to Slack messages, and managing your calendar.

Both are necessary, but one adds more value than the other. Unfortunately, when our time is fragmented, we’re much more likely to opt for shallow work tasks given our limited time and energy. 

Shatters work-life balance boundaries

Let’s revisit the significant role meetings play in fragmented time. Calendars fill with meetings, often scheduled ineffectively, leaving little time between them. However, more is needed even when workers find small amounts of time between meetings to attempt to do their work.

Fragmented time overflows and bursts the seams of work-life boundaries as to-do lists and urgent work tasks call our attention after hours. Atlassian’s Workplace Woes: Meetings Edition reported that 51% of the 5,000 knowledge workers surveyed work overtime a few days a week due to meeting overload, and that number climbed to 67% for those in director-level and above positions. 

Our work cups runneth over into the early morning and late evening hours of our days, interfering with commitments outside of work, family time, mental health rituals, and so much more. In other words, fragmented time works overtime to disrupt our calendars long after the workday ends.

How Clockwise can help reduce fragmented time

You don’t have to tackle fragmented time alone. We’ve helped thousands of organizations address challenges with fragmented time so they can enable their teams to focus on work that matters, perform better, and feel more engaged. 

Clockwise helped Unu Motors reduce fragmented time

​​Ahmed Sattar, a product manager at Unu Motors, and his teammates drowned in meetings, contributing to staggered schedules. Before Clockwise, they shared that they regularly had only 30 minutes between meetings for heads-down work. After using Clockwise, the team began protecting their Focus Time and adjusted their meeting scheduling norms to protect their boundaries. 

How Amplitude found more Focus Time with Clockwise

Recall that fragmented time promotes shallow work and insufficient time for deep work. Shintaro Matsui and Abbie Kouzmanoff leaned on Clockwise to find more time to focus and achieve more. Clockwise helped Amplitude create more Focus Time for drafting new reports, producing newsletters, generating document repositories, and formalizing annual planning.

After sharing these tasks, Shintaro said, “Those are things that you can't do in half-hour spurts, so it's really helpful to have that longer focus time.”

reduce fragmented time
The Amplitude team has created over 7,300 hours of Focus Time with Clockwise

How is fragmented time piling up at your company? 

Are you curious about the impacts of fragmented time on your team? Chat with one of our specialists to get benchmarks for companies your size and actionable steps to improve your meeting culture today.

Sign up now if you haven't signed up for Clockwise yet but want to say goodbye to fragmented workdays.

About the author

Alyssa Towns

Alyssa Towns has written productivity and time management content for Clockwise for several years. Early in her career, she dove into time management strategies to effectively manage her workday calendar and 10+ C-Suite officers' calendars across various organizations. She uses her training in change management to write time management, the future of work, and career content that helps people change their behaviors and habits. In addition, she writes about artificial intelligence (AI) and other technology for G2's Learn Hub. When she isn't writing, Alyssa enjoys trying new restaurants with her husband, playing with her Bengal cats, adventuring outdoors, or reading a book from her TBR list.

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