There’s no doubt that collaboration and communication have great potential benefits in the workplace. But on the flipside, mounting research shows that one of the biggest productivity killers is, well, other people. A 2013 survey of working professionals found noisy coworkers and impromptu “meetings” with colleagues at the top of the list of productivity diminishing distractions. That’s not to say you should barricade your door and go off the grid completely, but it’s worthwhile to explore the benefits of scheduling solo time for greater productivity. Here’s why you should be spending more time alone at work, and how to make it part of your schedule without putting others off.
When solo time works
One of the principal reasons scheduling solo time is so important is that for some tasks it’s simply more effective to work in isolation. For instance, open plan offices are terrific for promoting information sharing, teamwork, and staff morale. Tasks that primarily require communication and collaboration are best done in this environment. However, these environments take a severe toll on focus, deep analytical thought, and even creativity. Therefore cognitive tasks that require analysis, critical thought, and personal creativity are best kept to blocks of alone time.
Solo time boosts creativity
Even though collaboration is commonly considered the ultimate creativity generator, alone time also proves to be an excellent antidote to mental block. In collaborative environments our own ideas are often overwhelmed by the ideas and expectations of others. Being alone sets the stage for reflection and developing individual creativity, which can then be applied to solving complex problems.
Being alone is healthy
Dedicating time to working solo is great for personal productivity, but it also happens to be a mentally and emotionally healthy habit to get into. Spending time alone has been shown to improve mental strength and persistence, increase empathy, improve memory, and increase self-knowledge. Although these benefits may not have direct, short-term impacts on personal productivity, they do tend to promote overall happiness and competence, which have great long-term payoffs both personally and professionally.
How to schedule alone work time without appearing anti-social
Suddenly dropping off the grid may freak out some colleagues. To help, here are a few tips for carving out that solo work time in a way that minimized disruption to others.
Time blocking – If you wait for solo time to appear naturally in your schedule, it’s unlikely you’ll ever see it. Other people’s demands on us (particularly for managers and business leaders) tend to expand to fill whatever space is available. Instead, use the time blocking technique to arrange blocks of solo time in your days or weeks.
Time blocking solo work means setting aside a set chunk of time in which you will be alone and uninterrupted as you work on a specific task. It helps to share this schedule with colleagues and perhaps even post a notice on your office door politely requesting visitors and meetings be postponed until after the time block.
Before setting a time blocking schedule, it can be helpful to do a bit of time tracking first. Track work time and productivity results over the period of a week or two and see when you’re most likely to be free of distractions, or when you’re most in need of distraction-free solo work time. Time tracking data on specific work tasks can also be useful for identifying which activities you may benefit most from boosted productivity via focused solo work time. Then use the data to build a block schedule with specific tasks, goals, and deadlines tied to each block of time.
Set email auto-notifications – Email can be an insidious disrupter of solo time. It feels like you’re alone as you respond to emails, but you’re not really. To get the most out of your alone time, set an email auto-response that explains you are unavailable but will respond to messages at the earliest convenience. Then close your inbox and don’t open it again until solo time is over.
Practice single-tasking – The benefits of solo work time are most enhanced by including single-tasking work strategies. Turn of mobile and desktop notifications, put your phone on silent, and close all browser tabs that aren’t relevant to the task at hand (see our post on single-tasking strategies for more details).