How to Play Chicken

and Other Time-Saving Tactics for Your Work Day

The other day, I had an interesting conversation with my client, Nicki Fatherly, who over the years has taught me lots and kept me laughing. Nicki and I are both reading “Your Brain at Work,” a book I recommended not long ago. Coincidentally, she’s reading it on my “old” Kindle that I sold to her (another story for perhaps my new blog coming soon) and she has been thoroughly enjoying the facts about what the brain can and cannot handle at work and in life. She also recently read “The Myth of Multitasking,” another book that was on the Kindle when I handed it off to her.

Talking about these two books led us to a discussion about multi-tasking and interruptions and her increasing attention to these topics since she works as a Project Manager in a cubicle environment and therefore deals with more interruptions than she cares to from day to day.

Here are 3 bits of advice that came from our discussion – advice from Nicki that I whole-heartedly support so you can fight interruptions and avoid multi-tasking.

1. Learn to Play “Chicken”

Remember the ago-old game of Chicken? It’s a game in which two drivers drive towards one another on a single lane road or bridge and one driver must swerve or both will die in a fiery crash, which is the worst possible outcome for both.

Another name for this game is “Hawk-Dove” and “refers to a situation in which there is a competition for a shared resource and the contestants can choose either conciliation or conflict.” [Wikipedia] I find the Hawk-Dove description very fitting, since the biggest shared resource at the heart of any work day and one that’s often a source of personal conflict, is time.

What you can do… Nicki says that “you have to stand your ground and learn to play chicken” when someone comes at you, trying to get your attention and your time. You need to stay on course, despite the interruption and the possibility of making yourself or others slightly uncomfortable in the short term. Be firm with the other person and negotiate your time. You don’t have to automatically acquiesce. Your time is just as valuable as theirs.

2. Don’t let your time be “on demand” from others

Nicki’s view of her office mates is a general division between two types of people: those who plan their time and those who don’t. When you’ve become a careful planner, as Nicki has become, and one who doesn’t want to lose focus every 5 minutes, you can still be interrupted by people from the “other side” who think they can still get your attention whenever they demand it.

According to Nicki, and I’m sure many of my other clients, it’s irritating when you get your plan together, but then you have to keep “planning for the disruptions and distractions of those who don’t plan.” So now she “plans for people who don’t plan their time” – or their tasks.

What you can do… Your best defense against others who interrupt you when you want to keep your focus is to quickly assess if it’s better for you to stop what you’re doing to entertain the other person’s questions, deeming it a priority, or to ask that the person come back at a specified time.

If you can follow the advice in Tip #1 and play “Chicken,” stand your ground and offer the following options:

a. Suggest other times when the other person can come back with their questions
b. Suggest a time when they can call you later
c. Offer to call them back later at a specified time
d. Or set a meeting for another time or another day

Either way, don’t fall into the “on demand” trap. Stand your ground and preserve your time.

3. Change old thoughts and change old behaviors

The way Nicki sees it, there’s a warped norm in office environments now. It’s the idea that we are all now expected to be able to multi-task – or worse, that we should be proud that we are multi-taskers – addressing tasks and interruptions all at the same time and becoming the source of interruptions for others. No matter which you believe, you’re kidding yourself. It’s the biggest, fattest falsehood out there these days.

What you can do… It’s possible for you to come over to “the productive side” and be one who plans tasks, protects time wisely, and has control of your day. Forget about multi-tasking, focus on one thing at a time and follow tasks through to completion.

Once you learn how to do these things and do them well, you can share the lessons with others and together you can all boost productivity and profitability.

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