What is Focus Time and how does it impact productivity?

As an Engineering Manager, you’re constantly evaluating thousands of priorities.

“A great deal of a manager’s work has to do with allocating resources: manpower, money, and capital,” Andrew S. Grove wrote in his classic book, High Output Management. “But the single most important resource that we allocate from one day to the next is our own time.” The second-most important resource that we allocate as managers is our Engineers’ time. Unlike manpower, money, and capital, time is truly finite.

We believe that increasing Focus Time for you and your reports is one of the highest leverage improvements you can make as a manager.

Focus Time is high-leverage
Focus Time is high-leverage

Our research shows that for Engineering Managers, more Focus Time is measurably positively correlated with productivity, speed, and revenue.

We found that:

  • 90% of Engineering Managers said they’re more productive when they have more Focus Time
  • 80% of Engineering Managers said Focus Time helps them finish projects faster
  • 76% of Engineering Managers said Focus Time helps their company bring in more revenue

This guide will introduce you to the idea of Focus Time, show you how it impacts productivity, speed, and revenue, and walk you through how to get more of it.

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How we spend our work time

At Clockwise, we’ve optimized calendars for thousands of workers at hundreds of companies — from Spotify to Slack — which puts us in a unique position to understand how people are spending their work time.

Most of us won’t be shocked to learn that today’s knowledge workers are notoriously distracted. In fact, researchers have extensively studied the topic. Still, the stats are startling:

  • The average employee wastes up to 41% of their time at work on low-value tasks.
  • 53% of employees waste at least one hour every day dealing with distractions.
  • Slack’s average user sends 200 messages every day.
  • The average worker spends 1 hour and 5 minutes of their work day reading news sites.
  • Social media takes up 44 minutes of the average worker’s day.

And then when we do start doing real work, we’re rarely able to concentrate. Work from Gloria Mark at the University of California, Irvine has shown that workers typically attend to a task for about three minutes before switching to something else (usually an electronic communication). A recent study found that a typical employee only has 11 minutes between distractions. Other studies show that office workers are interrupted about seven times an hour, which adds up to 56 interruptions a day, 80% of which are considered trivial.

Why distractions are so deadly to productivity

Not only are distractions frequent, but they kill productivity. Even brief mental blocks created by shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40% of your productive time. This is due to a phenomenon called “attention residue.” Research shows that when you switch tasks it takes a long time to get back to the level of efficiency you were at before you were interrupted.

“[P]eople need to stop thinking about one task in order to fully transition their attention and perform well on another,” Researcher Sophie Leroy wrote. “Yet, results indicate it is difficult for people to transition their attention away from an unfinished task and their subsequent task performance suffers.”

The problem with interruptions is that it takes 25 minutes and 26 seconds on average to get back on track. Other studies put it at 23 minutes.

How interruptions at work impact performance
How interruptions at work impact performance

The importance of Focus Time

Productivity gurus including Cal Newport and Nir Eyal argue that deep, profitable work requires chunks of uninterrupted time that are at least two hours, preferably longer. Chunks shorter than two hours impose unnecessary switching costs.

When Newport looked at 25 profiles of famously prolific, creative people he found they spent an average of 5.25 hours per day in deep work. Most of us, Newport argues in Deep Work, have about four hours of deep work in us per day. Newport himself works in two 2-3 hour chunks per day.

At Clockwise, we call two or more hours of uninterrupted work time Focus Time.

It’s in those periods that most workers get the majority of their real work done.

For example, in Deep Work, Cal Newport describes how Carl Jung wrote his books in a tower with no electricity to minimize distraction. Mark Twain wrote much of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in a shed in New York so far from his family they blew a horn at mealtimes. Theoretical Physicist Peter Higgs, the namesake of the Higgs boson particle, has never sent an email, surfed the internet, or used a cellphone. He was so out of touch that journalists couldn’t contact him to tell him he’d won a Nobel Prize.

Famous focusers
Famous focusers Carl Jung, Mark Twain, and Peter Higgs

Digging into the data on Focus Time

At Clockwise, our mission is to help the world make time for what matters. We think that giving workers more Focus Time will help them get more done, in less time, than before.

Our hypothesis: Engineering teams with more Focus Time enjoy greater levels of productivity and their organizations enjoy higher revenues compared with teams with less Focus Time. To validate our hypothesis, we surveyed 152 Engineering Managers about how Focus Time correlates with productivity and revenue at their organizations. We also looked at what the existing research had to say about the relationship between Focus Time and positive business outcomes.

We asked Engineering Managers about how much uninterrupted work time they’d ideally have, and how much they need to get real work done. Then we asked how uninterrupted work time correlates with productivity, speed, and revenue.

How much uninterrupted work time Engineering Managers want and need

First, we wanted to know how much uninterrupted work time Engineering Managers would have in an ideal world. In his famous essay, Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule, Paul Graham wrote that Engineers need hours of uninterrupted time to code, while managers only need an hour or so at a time.

But what we found was that for more than 78% of Engineering Managers, one to two hours or two to three hours of uninterrupted work time is ideal. Less than 6% said they want less than one hour.

Ideal length of Focus Time
Ideal length of Focus Time

Results were similar when asked Engineering Managers how much uninterrupted time they need to get real work done. Most need at least a solid hour, and 82% need somewhere between one and three hours.

Focus Time needed for real work
Focus Time needed for real work

This lines up with research originating everywhere from HBR to health influencers to Montessori showing that most people get their best work done in one-to-three hour chunks of uninterrupted Focus Time.

How Focus Time impacts productivity

Labor economics research shows that after a certain number of hours, worker productivity levels off or even drops. This indicates that boosting productivity through longer hours is less effective than finding ways to get more done in the time we’re at work. We know that distractions waste time and reduce productivity. So it would make sense that the inverse is true.

To find out, we asked Engineering Managers how Focus Time impacts their productivity and 90% agreed with the statement “I’m more productive when I have more blocks of uninterrupted time at work.”

How Focus Time impacts productivity
How Focus Time impacts productivity

Other companies are coming to the same conclusion. So convinced was Pinterest that fewer interruptions improve Engineering productivity that they implemented three no-meeting days -- to great success.

How Focus Time impacts speed

We also wanted to know whether Focus Time correlates with speed. More than 80% of Engineering Managers either strongly agreed or agreed with the statement, “My team completes projects faster when I am my team have more blocks of uninterrupted time at work.”

How Focus Time impacts speed
How Focus Time impacts speed

Again, since interruptions are known to slow workers down and increase their error rates, it makes sense that you’ll be able to get things done faster with fewer interruptions.

How Focus Time impacts revenue

Lastly, we wanted to know how Focus Time correlates with revenue. Here, 76% of Engineering Managers either strongly agreed or agreed that “My company brings in more revenue when I and my team have more blocks of uninterrupted time at work.”

How Focus Time impacts revenue
How Focus Time impacts revenue

While there are few studies of the impact of interruptions on revenue, we know that interruptions are more disruptive for “higher workload” tasks (like software engineering) than for “lower workload” tasks (like email). And people who suffer frequent interruptions are 23% less likely to say "today was a really successful day." So it’s not a stretch to imagine that anything that measurably impacts error rates and worker satisfaction would impact revenue.

It makes intuitive sense that Focus Time would correlate with higher productivity, faster production times, and higher revenue. But we’re happy to be able to say that we have data to help confirm our hypothesis.

Now that we know how valuable Focus Time is, how do we get more of it?

How to get more Focus Time

To fit more Focus Time into your day, it helps to develop three essential habits: Swerve, stack, and schedule. Let’s dig in.

1. Swerve

Learn how to ignore people

Delaying your response to incoming messages creates more Focus Time by giving you more time to respond more thoughtfully. This not only creates better responses, but more thought-out, thorough responses usually reduce the total number of messages required to get a point across. This should reduce the total amount of time in a given day you’re spending on messaging.

Instead of switching tasks to respond to messages immediately as they come in, try setting aside some time once or twice per day to respond to all incoming messages. This helps you stay in the loop while preserving your focus. You can also try scheduling multi-stakeholder, complex planning and strategy discussions rather than responding to messages as they pop up. It might be even faster to replace constant Slack chatter with Scrum standups. Lastly, try setting professor-style office hours for synchronous chats.

(Read more: Yes, I am ignoring you. Here’s why.)

2. Stack

Schedule your meetings back-to-back in your calendar

Every Sunday night or Monday morning, make a habit of taking a few minutes to look at your calendar and re-arrange events to maximize your (and your team’s) productivity.

For example, scheduling your meetings back-to-back can open up longer blocks of Focus Time. Wouldn’t you rather have one two-hour chunk of Focus Time than four 30-minute blocks between meetings when all you have time for are low-level tasks like email and Slack?

(Read more: Why focused work time is so important)

3. Schedule

Block off Focus Time on your calendar

Once you’ve created more Focus Time by setting up office hours and stacking your meetings, now it’s time to protect your Focus Time. Blocking out time in your calendar for focus helps signal to yourself and to others that this time is valuable. To maximize focus, make it clear that you’re not available to meet or be interrupted during your Focus Time. To take it a step further, put your phone on Do Not Disturb and sign out of your social media accounts during this time.

(Read more: Why 2020 is the year of focus at work)

How Clockwise can help

Clockwise automatically moves your meetings to the least-interruptive time for all attendees. And it schedules that Focus Time on your calendar so you can protect it from being scheduled over.

So far, we’ve created more than 100,000 hours of Focus Time for our users by moving more than 200,000 meetings to better times.

To see how Clockwise can help you and your team, try it today. It takes minutes to set up, and is totally free.

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Time Management