What happens to your manual counts each time you’re interrupted

Estimating best practices
What happens to your manual counts each time you’re interrupted

As an electrical estimator, you’re often juggling a lot of tasks.

Between collating tender documents, conducting takeoffs, sourcing subcontractors and fielding queries, your attention can easily be divided and this only applies to your own work. If you work in an estimating team you may get interrupted regularly and guess what? This can have a huge effect on your productivity. Especially, when you're conducting manual counting.

Here’s what happens every time you face an interruption:

Your brain and interruptions

Many people profess to be excellent multitaskers, and it's a key skill you'll often see on job descriptions.

But in reality, we’re not as great at multitasking as we think we are. Even if you’re certain you’re handling multiple tasks at once and doing them well, scientific research tells us this isn’t really the case. What you’re really doing is either rapidly serial-tasking, or doing one thing at a time. Sometimes you handle this well, but sometimes the very real limitations of the human brain mean you’re not doing as well as you think.

Let’s say you’re in the middle of a manual count and you’re interrupted by the phone ringing, or a colleague popping their head into your office door. You might think it’s no problem - as an experienced estimator you’ll simply handle whatever it is that they need and get right back to where you were counting. However, the reality is, it’s not that simple. 

Interruptions create a toll for your brain

There have been multiple studies into how our brains work and what happens to productivity when we’re interrupted. This study found that interruptions can derail your mental progress in a task for up to half-an-hour afterwards. 

Another study found that it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to your original task after an interruption. This has nothing to do with your experience or your commitment to getting the job done, it’s about the cognitive impact of interruption. Whether we're conscious of it or not, interruptions cause our brains to lag. Interruptions can also increase the error rate in skilled tasks, which is not what you want when it comes to counting takeoffs and estimating your project.

Getting back to that knock on your door while you’re in the middle of a manual count, what is the true cost? You might think it’s a 30 second query from a colleague, but the reality is it’s probably a 24 or 25 minute brain interruption.

The quality of your work is impacted

Do interruptions affect the overall quality of your work? We know for sure interruptions impact productivity, but what about the actual final output? The short answer is yes, your quality of work can be negatively affected by interruptions.

This could cause you to think you’ve already counted something, or, you might find yourself absent-mindedly doing something you didn’t mean to, like highlighting an area you haven’t already counted. Interruptions could lead to other quality errors too, such as noting down the wrong number or perhaps putting the right number in the wrong place. All in all, there’s a real danger of interruptions leading to an inaccurate estimate.

Your work conditions

We’ve always had to deal with some level of interruption at work. But today, we seem to have multiplied the number of potential culprits for interruptions.

Interruption while working in an office

If you’re in a traditional workplace, you have colleagues around you and it can be difficult to focus without interruption or getting caught up in a conversation happening nearby.

Besides people physically interrupting, modern technology has given us several options for distraction. It’s not just your traditional landline ringing, your mobile will also flash up with calls, texts and app notifications. On your computer, Slack, email or Skype might be pinging you while you try to get a manual count done. You might be successful at ignoring those notifications, but if you cave in and “just send a quick reply,” you’ll end up with a cognitive penalty.

Working from home

In the current climate more and more estimators are working from home, and that opens up the possibilities for new interruptions. While colleagues tend to be easy to “train” in terms of leaving you uninterrupted for a count, your kids may be less so! If it’s not them, it could be a household distraction like an Amazon delivery or even a pile of washing waiting to be done.

Another thing about working from home is that often, other people don’t “get” it. While perhaps the world is becoming more used to the idea, you may have noticed a tendency in the past for friends and relatives to think that you must be “free” for various activities just because you’re home. There can be added pressure to your time, as you have to make them understand that you’re actually there to work!

Tips for handling distractions

Whether you’re working from an office or at home, there are a number of strategies you can put in place to manage interruption and give yourself the needed brain space to complete your work. 

Some tips include:

  • Telling people you need uninterrupted time. It’s a simple solution, but it helps to communicate! This can be in person, or by setting an "away' status on any chat systems your company uses.
  • Having some kind of agreed signal that you’re not to be interrupted. This is good when working from home or at the office. For example, you might put a sign on your door or wear headphones.
  • Turning off all notifications or devices that might interrupt your concentration.
  • Finding an environment that helps you to focus and do your best work. For example, any sort of mess or clutter can be distracting for many people. A tidy space with a clear desk can be helpful, as can ensuring things like household chores have been done already and aren’t distracting you!
  • Using automated processes that aren’t impacted by interruptions. There are many tasks now that can be automated with the help of software.

Final thoughts

We live in a time of near-constant interruption and distraction from our work. In roles such as electrical estimating where devotion to accuracy is paramount, these distractions can take a toll on your productivity and the quality of your work.

If you’re still manually counting takeoffs, there is a better solution to help you limit the potential impacts of distractions: Automated takeoff software. Countfire will automatically count takeoffs and save your progress as you go. It doesn’t matter how many interruptions you face, your work quality doesn’t have to suffer.

Want to know more? You can start a free trial here.