How Long Does It Take to Do a One Hour Task?

The answer seems obvious. How long should it take to do a one hour task? One hour. How long does it take? Our actions and behaviors often indicate otherwise.

Research studies have shown that the average worker typically has consistent focus on a task for just three to eleven minutes before we are interrupted by either an external or internal distraction. External distractions include incoming emails, phone calls, or someone knocking on our door seeking requests for assistance, counsel, or wanting to engage in the banter of the day. Internal distractions are our self-chatter . . . Hungry . . . what’s happening later . . . a recent argument with someone . . . Did I leave the coffee pot on when I left the house?

After the interruption or distraction, how long does it take to get back in the right frame of mind and return to the original task? Research indicates the gap in time is twenty-five minutes, IF I return to the task at all!

Based on this data, how long does it take then to do a one hour task? We focus on a task at hand for 3-11 minutes . . . a distraction . . . a 25 minute gap (IF we return at all!) . . . another 3-11 minutes on task . . . distraction . . . a 25 minute gap . . . another 3-11 minutes on task . . . Is it any wonder that it often feels like it takes several hours to get a simple task done?

There are solutions and options. When we see or hear the sound of an incoming email, why do we automatically stop and redirect our attention to look, giving it highest priority and letting it jump to the front of the line, often to discover a spam message or low priority note that does not require our immediate response?

What about that knock on our door? Is this a distraction, a leadership opportunity, or both? What are some options? For example, when someone knocks on my door asking if I have a moment, unless it is a truly urgent matter that requires immediate attention, my answer might be a polite but firm no, I do not have a moment right now, looking for another time to meet later. My answer may be yes, I have a moment, but only a moment, if this is going to take longer than a minute or two, we’ll need to meet at a time when we are both present and focused.

Neuroscience indicates our brains have two circuits, a narrative self-talk that is focused on the past or future, and a direct circuit that is focused on the present. These two are anti-correlated, in that when one is turned on, the other is closed off.

Throughout the day most of us are talking to ourselves in the narrative circuit, engaging for several hours every day thinking about something that has happened in the past or anxious about something that could happen in the future.

If we are able to notice ourselves in this state, we can immediately redirect ourselves by shifting our focus to the present. We can notice our breath. We can stop to smell the coffee, the roses, or the soap.

There are two important victories with this practice. The first victory is catching ourselves and shifting to the present. Every time we do this we are growing in our self-awareness and building resilience. The second victory is the time savings of less internal distraction from being more focused in the present. Even a little change each day is a significant opportunity for enhancing our quality of life. Eliminating just ten minutes of self-chatter each day results in over an hour a week in additional time in the present. Over a year, an additional hour of being in the present each week is a 52 hour vacation. With less distractions and improved focus, what could you do with ten minutes of extra time each day?

With self-awareness, discipline, and practice, we can choose to be more intentional in the present. We can sharpen our focus on what’s most important and reduce distractions to be more efficient in accomplishing tasks. We can even complete one hour tasks in an hour!


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