The Impact Of Interruptions & What To Do About Them
Most of us love the modern tools that we have at our disposal because they seem to make us more effective, keep us organized and better able to communicate with one another. The downside of these tools is that they seem to compete for attention through ongoing sounds and notifications. In addition to the technical tools, our modern open offices also leave us vulnerable to ongoing interruptions from our colleagues. My goal with this post is to discuss the impact of interruptions and some strategies for dealing effectively with them.
Interruptions Are A Productivity Killer
By now, most of us have heard that interruptions are a huge productivity killer. For knowledge workers concentrating deeply on a task, studies have shown that it takes between 20-25 minutes to get back to the level of focus they were at before they were interrupted. The fascinating thing for me is that it doesn’t have to be a long interruption. A few seconds and your concentration is broken and you return to the sights, sounds and headspace of your office.
“it takes between 20-25 minutes to get back to the level of focus they were at before they were interrupted”
In addition to this long recovery time, interruptions and context switching happens incredibly frequently according to researchers at UofC, Irvine – on average every 3 minutes. No wonder then that these inefficiencies are estimated to cost organizations 28 billion wasted hours and the US economy a trillion dollars according to Jonathan Spira, who wrote “Overload! How Too Much Informatioin Is Hazardous To Your Organization”.
“these inefficiencies are estimated to cost organizations 28 billion wasted hours and the US economy a trillion dollars…”
For those doing creative or knowledge work, such as a software developer writing code or a marketing manager drafting a marketing plan, interruptions causes a drop in the quality of work. For workers trying to accomplish time-sensitive tasks, efficiently, such as a picker at an Amazon warehouse, the quality and accuracy of the work goes down.
Self-Worth & Satisfaction
Amazingly, the impact of interruptions goes beyond just the quality and quantity of work, it also affects people’s work satisfaction and sense of accomplishment. When interruptions cause project delays or the quality of work to suffer, it also reduces people’s job satisfaction or sense of accomplishment. The opposite is also true. From a morale, perspective, then, it’s best to make the work environment as interruption-free as possible. But how?
How To Minimize Technology Interruptions
There are things that you can do to prevent yourself from being interrupted as well as some ideas about how you can be a better at not interrupting others.
There are several ways that you can prevent yourself from being interrupted by technology. One is to turn off your notifications so as to minimize the distracting bings and fly-outs that we’re naturally drawn to looking at. The challenge is that this takes some effort and energy to remember both to turn notifications off and then on again.
“turn off your notifications…to minimize the distracting bings and fly-outs”
Another best practice both for emails and phone calls is to set email and voice-mail messages that tell those trying to contact you how often and at what times you check messages and during what time blocks you return them.
Managing People Interruptions
For people interruptions there are several things you can do. Your office can set aside dedicated blocks of time when members of the team agree to do only focused work and promise not to interrupt others. Efficiency and workflow consultant, Edward G. Brown calls these “Time Locks”. These are meant to keep, what he calls “Time Bandits”, away from you. These are people who are not consciously trying to sabotage your efforts, they are simply unconscious of the impact that they’re having. These are people who want to talk about minor or unrelated things like the weather or the football game and don’t realize that they’re having a major impact on your day.
“set aside dedicated blocks of time when members of the team agree to do only focused work and promise not to interrupt others.”
According to Brown, research conducted in the financial services sector showed that interruptions ate up over 6 hours of the day. While some of these interruptions may have been valuable, it still means that someone wanting to get anything done, had very little actual time in which to do it. As a result, people complain about not having enough time to get things done. The reality is the time is there, it’s just that some many other small and big things get in the way, so that very little time is spent on what people say is important to them.
Try These Ways Of Protecting Your Time
One best practice that I have used when I really want to get something done is to book a boardroom, close the door. The door is a natural barrier and tells people that you don’t want to be disturbed. The cubicle equivalent is to put headphones on and tell people that you don’t want to be disturbed. It’s less effective than sequestering yourself in a room but more effective than not doing anything at all.
“The door is a natural barrier and tells people that you don’t want to be disturbed.”
I also invite you to be a conscious interrupter. Think about what you’re doing, before you interrupt someone. Is what you have to ask extremely important? Do you really need the answer right away? Can it wait?
Having worked with technical people for much of my career, I have come to appreciate that when someone is coding or working on problem they are deep in thought and to interrupt them means it will take them out of the zone. Out of respect for my colleagues, I am mindful of the impact of breaking their train of thought.
“…to interrupt them means it will take them out of the zone.”
It’s one thing to think about preventing interruptions from other people but you also want to ask yourself, “How much do I actually distract myself?” If you want to set a good example for your colleagues, ensure that you minimize your own distractions, don’t unduly interrupt others and use approaches like the Pomodoro Technique, to keep yourself focused and on track.
“…ensure that you minimize your own distractions, don’t unduly interrupt others and use approaches like the Pomodoro Technique…”
While it can feel like we don’t have the time to get everything done, try some of the approaches mentioned above to prevent your tools from distracting you, other people from interrupting you and find ways to guard your time so that you can get things done with a renewed sense of commitment and accomplishment.
Robert Zalaudek is CEO of TwoTonic Labs, a company that builds “thinking tools for thinking people”. TwoTonic’s latest SaaS app, called Pomodus, is a Pomodoro app that reduces interruptions and distractions by silencing notifications in Slack and letting colleagues know that you’re “heads-down” and at what time you’ll be done. It also lets users plan their day, analyze and track their results. Check it out!