How Focus Time impacts productivity, speed, and revenue for Engineering teams

As an Engineering Manager, you’re constantly evaluating the 1,000’s of priorities competing for your attention to decide which are going to be the highest leverage for your organization.

“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.

This guide will introduce you to the idea of Focus Time and walk you through how to get more of it.

How we spend our work time

At Clockwise, we’ve optimized calendars for thousands of workers at hundreds of companies — from Lyft to Asana 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:

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 someone's 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.

Research shows that being constantly interrupted at work:

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.

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.

Millennials most valued work benefits

Training and development was the most-cited most valuable work benefit for Millennial workers Get Lighthouse

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.

Top priorities when job seeking

"Opportunities for career progression” was the most-often cited attribute that makes an employer attractive. Get Lighthouse

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.”

Top priorities when job seeking

"Opportunities for career progression” was the most-often cited attribute that makes an employer attractive. Get Lighthouse

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.”

Top priorities when job seeking

"Opportunities for career progression” was the most-often cited attribute that makes an employer attractive. Get Lighthouse

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.”

Top priorities when job seeking

"Opportunities for career progression” was the most-often cited attribute that makes an employer attractive. Get Lighthouse

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 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 133,800 hours of Focus Time for our users by moving 278,775 meetings and resolving 108,248 conflicts.

To learn more about how Engineering Managers like you are getting more done in less time with Clockwise, check out these stories:

How Clockwise Helps Greg at Asana Be a Better Mentor

Clockwise makes it easier for Greg to see his reports every week. “I've seen each of my reports in-person, face-to-face, one-on-one, every week to build up that trust faster and also to give feedback on things a lot sooner than I would be able to on a biweekly cadence.” Greg really values that progress, and those relationships. “One thing I really love about Clockwise, I have this confidence that I'm using their time as mindfully as possible, and even taking advantage of the time that would be sort of unproductive as independent time, and still able to develop a really deep relationship with them.”

How Clockwise helps Sri, Engineering Manager at Asana

It can be difficult to make time for all your reactive work while also setting aside time for the kind of proactive work that moves the needle for your organization. For Sri and his reports, Clockwise’s Focus Time Sync set aside and protected Focus Time on their calendars, and Autopilot created more total Focus Time for the team. As a result, they’re better able to respond to last-minute needs while prioritizing high-value tasks.

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