Interruptions at work are like rain at picnics. Why? It is rare that anyone finds them refreshing. And while picnics have lost popularity, a lot of people still care for work productivity.
There is an abundance of research on interruptions and what they do to your productivity. Although you already know that interruptions are bad, here are some highlights. Scroll down to learn how to fight interruptions at work.
Interruptions at work and why they are bad
Firstly, they diminish your performance on complex tasks. And this is easy to understand. Most of us break down complex tasks into smaller components. But at times, the breaking down is abstract. Like various flows and chunks and processes. And any interruption will make you lose track.
Secondly, they favor procedural errors and error-prone learning. Whenever you learn a new skill or process, you optimize. But what you don’t want is optimize error integration. Sure, interruptions make learning more difficult, and this is clear. However, the main issue is that interruptions affect procedural performance. Either at a learning phase or at a performing phase. What you get is bad procedural performance. And overall, a decrease in productivity.
Thirdly, interruptions at work tax your memory. Yes, you guessed, the working memory. And you have a limited amount of working memory. This happens because interruptions are information overload. You will naturally try and absorb the new chunks of information. “Hey, maybe it’s something relevant to my survival!”. But in modern times, most interruptions are irrelevant. True emergencies are very rare. And stopping makes you lose track for no good reason.
Lastly, some good news. Interruptions at work are a modern challenge. And challenges are good news. Think about it this way. We used to thrive on reacting to any interruption. And that had great survival value. Either fight or flight, anything that came your way. Yet today things are different. There are few emergencies. Although we are interruption-prone, we end up losing a lot because of interruptions.
Most of all, there are far too many opportunities for interruptions. Your Facebook wall. Or any other notification. GOT MAIL. Phone calls. Also, colleagues and friends. Managers. And unhelpful meetings. Also, spam. So what can we do to beat them?
How to fight interruptions at work with 3 easy strategies
Firstly, think about what you want to achieve. Greater concentration, fewer mistakes. Or increased efficiency, greater productivity. These are not mutually exclusive. You just need to figure out on which side of the fence you are. Is your work sub-par or do you simply want to take it to the next level? Either way, the fight begins.
1. Acknowledge your opponent. Interruptions happen more often than you know.
Try keeping an “interruption sheet” for a few days. From Excel to a notebook, you can use anything you want. Keep track of the time of the interruption, write down why and who, how much it lasted and “grade” the importance or relevance of the interruption. For example, on a scale of 1 to 5, how important was it? Was it urgent? Finally, write down the time you first feel like you’re back on track with your work. You know, that moment you regain your focus. Write down the time.
At the end of the day, spend a few minutes and check your data. You will notice some patterns. Firstly, how many minutes did it take you to regain focus? AFTER the interruption ended? Those minutes are pure pain. That is the “echo” of interruptions at work. Secondly, how many minutes did you waste on insignificant (<3 out of 5) interruptions? In some cases, this can be hours. In fact, knowledge workers lose hours in productivity simply because by sharing the office space.
You could add a “likelihood of losing a great idea” column to your sheet. Or you could complicate the sheet as much as you need. The result will be the same. And it will be similar to that of other people. But now you know what bugs you, when, who, how, why. And you can fight it.
2. Schedule your interruptions at work. Pick your fights.
Make it clear to everyone that interruptions at work are evil. Explain the science. Bring your data sheet. And even send them some nice infographics. Remember that “1 to 5” scale? Well, some interruptions at work are necessary. Others hold value. So go ahead and get them out of the way.
You have two options here. Either go with “DO NOT Disturb” OR “Available from … to … ” Both work well, with the latter being more positive. Call it “availability interval.” You should want people to interact with you. Yet make sure they do it when it’s convenient for you. Also, when working in a team, make sure you are not the one interrupting others. Ask them to tell you their “availability interval.”
Notifications and calls
You can silence most of your notifications, but you might lose what’s relevant. Also, you could put your phone on silent, but you might miss a few important calls. The issue here is that you need to make a judgement call. And this is in itself an interruption. To manage this issue, you can use AI solutions. It works like this: the AI detects that you’re focusing on something. And silences all redundant calls or notifications. Scroll down here to number 4 and read more.
Sure, you’ve managed your notifications. There is no more “new email” notification. Yet you still seem to waste a lot of time on emails. Or use emails as an excuse to stop working for a bit. But using team collaboration software will significantly lower your internal emailing rate. And redundant meetings too. Even using a template for your signature saves you approximately 1 work hour per month.
3. Adjust your mindset. Be like water.
Headphones work like magic for noise. You put them on, play something in the background, and let yourself go. Your work flow is not an external process. It all happens in your mind.
You can do all sorts of things to get better focus. And you can take it one step further. Fuel that interdependence. Sleep and sports, nutrition and focus. All of them make you better when dealing with interruptions at work. Sure, you can wake up early and crank half your work in the morning. Interruptions are less likely to happen in the morning.
But there is one thing that directly affects your results. And it’s how you manage interruptions once they occur. Try and “sing” your work. Imagine singing a song while someone asks you a question. You can still keep the tune, even if you pay attention to the question, right? Do the same with some of those unavoidable interruptions.
Reacting to interruptions this way is simple. Whenever you feel that someone will interrupt, push your focus towards work and simply let them know you’re busy. Only burn the energy to make that one judgement call. Is this worth your focus? If yes, go ahead and re-focus. If no, keep humming that tune.
Overall, interruptions at work account for huge losses in overall productivity. Being preemptive gives you the upper hand. Interruptions at work are cognitive overload. Hence, managing interruptions lowers your anxiety. Also, you pay a high price whenever you get interrupted. Stop paying that price. And position yourself for success.