With distractions constantly popping up in the workplace — from emails to telephone calls — it seems hard to get any work done. Also interfering with getting work done is trying to multi-task and memory. Renee Montagne talks to Financial Times columnist Lucy Kellaway about time management — or the lack there of — in her life and in the lives of workers everywhere.
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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
In getting through a workday filled with email, tweets, endless interruptions, it can involve a fair amount of remembering what not to forget.
Lucy Kellaway is the workplace and management columnist for the Financial Times. She mulled this over in a recent column and joined us from London as she occasionally does.
Glad to have you back.
Ms. LUCY KELLAWAY (Workplace and Management Columnist, The Financial Times): Hello.
MONTAGNE: Time management. And, Lucy, what exactly prompted you to pay attention to this, oh, so common problem?
Ms. KELLAWAY: Well, I just had a particularly bad day. I kept on forgetting things. So, I forgot my keys. I couldn't lock up my bike. I went out to lunch with someone quite important, and then afterwards, I lost the little disk that they give you when you check-in your coat. And then, on the way back from it, I missed my stop on the tube because I was actually trying to think about what I was going to write.
That was all quite bad. But when I got at the end of the day, I realized that I had forgotten to do any work. I felt I was working really hard. But by the end of the day, I thought, goodness, I hadn't really written my article. So I did it in a mad dash. The upshot was I thought there has got to be a better way.
MONTAGNE: And would the article have been, by any chance, about forgetting?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. KELLAWAY: Indeed, it was about forgetting. And actually, I had just read a couple of books that claimed to give the answer to all of this. So I was giving the - I gave them a bit of a dry run. The first one was about writing checklists, and this being the great answer; a book by Atul Gawande, who argues that all sorts of big problems in life are solved by checklists.
He gives examples of how, in ER, patients lives can be saved that way; how if you're building a huge building, a checklist will stop it from collapsing. Alas, it doesn't really work for me because I can't really write a list that says: When the train pulls into your station, get off. So it seems that that really isn't the answer for me.
MONTAGNE: (Unintelligible) but, Lucy, but, of course, you could make that list. The question is, would you make that list?
Ms. KELLAWAY: Well, no. I mean, I've got some self-respect. So the idea that I have to treat myself as a sub-moron and write a list like that makes me too depressed to pick up my pen, frankly.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MONTAGNE: Well, okay. So this didn't work for you. How else did you try coping with the distractions in our modern life that we have to cope with?
Ms. KELLAWAY: Yes. I mean, the problem is memory. And my next guru is somebody who used to be the chief information officer at Google called Douglas Merrill, and he has a book coming out that looks at the question of memory. And he says that multitasking is a disaster because we overload our short-term memories and find we can't really do anything at all. And I do what lots of people do. I work for three seconds and then I check my email. Then I work for three more seconds, then I check my email. That is a disaster. It sort of fries your brain and it prevents you from doing any work.
So, I just decided, right, I am not going to check my email for an hour. And I did make it. But if you're as addicted as I am, there's so much will power involved in not checking your email. I'm not sure how much ahead I came out at the end of that particular hour.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MONTAGNE: So, what did you do that worked?
Ms. KELLAWAY: Well, there were two really comforting thoughts. One is this idea that you need to think about the stuff that you're going to store in your long-term memory. What's the stuff you really, really need to know for your job? And if you think about it, it's actually less than you think. I mean, almost everything can now be found on the Internet. And so, all the sorts of things that we feel we ought to remember I don't really think we need to at all. In fact, it seems to me the only point in remembering a lot of facts is that you can show off to your colleagues by spouting them when your computer's not at hand.
Although, my brain, even though I'd like to forget a whole lot of things, they're all in there anyway. I mean, any number of sort of stupid pop song lyrics of songs I don't even like seem to be using up space there and I'd like to get rid of them. I don't know how, unfortunately.
MONTAGNE: Well, given all of this, have you improved?
Ms. KELLAWAY: Renee, I'd love to be able to say, yes, I'm a new woman. I am making some progress. I'm not worrying about forgetting things. That in itself makes it better. And I'm also drawing comfort from people who are worse than me. My husband went to visit his family the other day and he opened the fridge and there was a copy of the evening newspaper folded neatly inside. I find that deeply comforting because I haven't quite got there yet.
MONTAGNE: Lucy Kellaway is the workplace and management columnist for the Financial Times, spoke to us from London.
Thanks very much.
Ms. KELLAWAY: It was a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.