The Art of Handling Interruptions
When is the last time you talked about interruptions? For something that occurs to us throughout every day; how much attention do we pay to it? When we do notice, it is due to some sort of external pressure - perhaps being constantly interrupted when under a deadline. Sometimes we notice a feeling of accomplishment after being free of interruptions and having made significant progress on a task. The majority of the time falls between - where we the effect of interruptions goes unnoticed.
Studies show it takes 25 minutes to regain focus after an interruption. The same study found on average you will have six interruptions per hour. In any case, a single interruption will significantly degrade your productivityGloria Mark of the University of California found that the average office worker is interrupted every eleven minutes, and that it takes an average of 25 minutes to return to the original task. in any hour long period. With this much impact on our effectiveness, why is this not discussed more?
It often takes an emotional reaction to our environment to force the issue. The panic of a looming deadline, or the frustration of not getting work done on time - can drive us to think: “I HAVE to get this done!” and force us to start taking action. Without a mental stressor driving us to take actions we often just deal with interruptions as they come and go. Consider how productive and satisfying your work would be if you could work without interruption on a regular basis!
By preventing interruptions, reducing the duration of interruptions, and not distracting ourselves we will find focus. Focus will allow us to engage with our work. Let’s call what we create interrupt-free time.
Defining an interruption
Per Merriam Webster
Interrupt (in·ter·rupt \ ˌin-tə-ˈrəpt ): (1) to stop or hinder by breaking in, (2) to break the uniformity or continuity of
In this article an interruption is any event, internal or external, that causes a break in your concentration. This break in concentration can be much smaller than what we normally would consider an interruption. Typically events like phone calls or visitors leap to mind when we ask about interruptions. But we need to go smaller to derive true benefits. A small interruption can be suddenly remembering we need to pick up juice on the way home.
Listed below are three categories of interruptionsI have to give credit to the Toyota approach categorizing business wastes for this epiphany. During my studies I found that when you can give form to a concept, such as a name, it becomes easy to recognize. . As you read, you will recognize many from your own experiences. The order of the categories move from the easiest to deal with to the most difficult.
First category: Technology interruptions
Technology interruptions include the innumerable ways our devices call attention to themselves. Designers intend the interruptions to help you in some cases. Often apps call attention to themselves to drive up usage - in the process distracting you.
An instant message comes in
Email bings and you need to check it
Appointment reminders popup on screen
Second category: People interruptions
People interruptions occur when people need something. It may be a work related need or perhaps boredom has driven a case of office wanderlust.
Text message from someone sharing cat pictures
Doug pokes his head into your office to just say “Hey”
Boss calls with a quick question
Bird flies smack into your windowThis has actually happened to me several times. I believe the birds are alright because I never find them on the ground after. It is pretty disconcerting. The bird is physically okay… but dang.
Third category: Interruptions we create for ourselves
We also create our own interruptions. Maybe it is the dopamine rush from social mediaSocial media activates the same areas of our brain that reward us. Over our evolution these instincts led to our survival as a species. In modern life the same triggers can become a detriment. For a quick summary read “Social Media Triggers a Dopamine High” by Molly Soat. , or part of our brain wants to be doing anything other than we are doing.
Your social media habit kicks in
Habitual email check
Gotta get more coffee
Most of us succumb to a great deal of this list. The most common ones are quite small and innocent, but have a large impact on our focus.
Why we should worry about interruptions
The impact of interruptions on our ability to focus is hard to quantify or understand. Some people understand that they work better when uninterrupted, but not why. Others create a quiet space when faced with looming deadlines. These people are reacting to experience, not because they understand the impact. It is hard for the average individual to place a value on how well they are focusing at any given time.
People often take interruptions at face value. A two minute instant message conversation is a considered a two minute interruption. It is difficult to notice the reduction in efficiency you encounter for the next 25 minutes.
The rate of interruptions compound the problem. Interruptions hit office workers an average of every eleven minutes according to a University of California study. Additionally, they found it takes 25 minutes to recover focus from each one. Simple math shows that the average office worker is never going to work at full potential. To have any time at peak focus you need to be interruption free for 25 minute. The time between then and your next interruption is your peak focus time.
Benefits of having interrupt-free time.
Science has proven that we are most productive when we can get, and stay interrupt-free. But the real value is that it facilitates “the zone” or “flow” or “deep work”. While there are slight differences they all share one common theme: completely immersing ourselves in a task. For example, in what Mihaly Csiksgentmihalyi has called “flow”Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow takes into account personal happiness, motivation, and a large number of other important aspects. “Flow” is an incredibly interesting concept and topic worth learning about. View his ted talk: Flow, the secret to happiness here. His first book published on the topic, “flow”, can be found on Amazon, your local library or other booksellers it encompasses immersion but also contemplates many benefits this can provide. Flow takes into account motivations and the work/life satisfaction resulting from these efforts.
While flow covers a much wider area, the zone refers to a focus on getting something done. You don’t need to love it, but you do need to do it.
This does not mean you need to be completely isolated. In fact, interruptions are most dangerous when there is a context-switch. Interruptions within the same context as you are working are less impactful, and possibly beneficial.
For example, you are working on a new widget design. Bob interrupts you about how the color of the widget will affect performance. The interruption maintains the same context - the widget design. Your brain is already all about widgets and the impact is minimal. You may even form some new connections.
Later that day you are still working on your widgets. Doug interrupts you to discuss projected printer paper usage for next year. Your mind needs to unload everything about widgets and think about printer paper. After that you need to reload all the thoughts about widgets.
While the science is still forming up, there is a clear indication that context-switches are harmful.
Maximizing our focus
The old adage “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”This famous quote from Benjamin Franklin is a reference to fire safety “In the first Place, as an Ounce of Prevention is worth a Pound of Cure, I would advise em to take care how they suffer living Coals in a full Shovel, to be carried out of one Room into another, or up or down Stairs, unless in a Warming pan shut; for Scraps of Fire may fall into chinks and make no Appearance until Midnight; when your Stairs being in Flames, you may be forced, (as I once was) to leap out of your Windows, and hazard your Necks to avoid being oven-roasted.” USHistory.org applies here as much as anywhere. Once you set aside a period of time for interrupt-free work you can take some precautions up front.
First, create a schedule in which to create your interruption-free time. It should be free of known events and I recommend having a known start and end time. When the time arrives, run down this list.
Take a moment to get settled. Refill coffee, grab some water, hit the bathroom, get some air. If you are getting hungry, grab a snack.
Block out your calendar. In some corporate email systems this will cause your IM to show up as in a meeting. This lessens the chances of someone coming to find you when they can’t bother you online.
Shutdown E-mail. This is more of a commitment than minimizing it. It also stops the constant binging, flashing, pulsing, and popups email uses to “help you”.
Hinder instant messaging. Shutting it down completely may make it look like you have left the office early. I recommend setting it to “Presenting”. This both prevents messaging you and also gives the impression you with other people. A final option is a simple “do not disturb”.
Silence your cell phone. Put it on mute and place it in a drawer so you don’t notice any text messages sent to you. Out of sight, out of mind will also help with habitual checks.
Silence your desk phone. Use “send to voicemail” to avoid calls. Turn the ringer all the way down, or unplug it if your phone system does a single ring in this mode.
Work in isolation. Close your door. If you work in a cubicle or open work-space, find a conference room or somewhere you can close off from the world.
Create audio isolation. I get distracted by everything - a creak in the house will create a micro distraction for meI assume this has something to do with a latent ability to avoid being eaten in the jungle. Some part of my brain lights up on each noise. Each time dragging me away a little bit. . Voices in the distance catch my attention. If you are like this, get a set of hearing protection ear muffs. Like the kind workers on airport runways wear. I never realized how much these noises affected me until I spent time working in complete silence.
If people can’t take the “closed door hint” put a quick note up. I’ve also seen people in cubes put notes on the backs of their chairs when they hunker down. Combine this with the noise muffs from above, face forward, and you are onto something.
Identify your goals for this work period. Be specific, you want to have crystal clear clarity on what you are trying to do. There is inherent value in creating an interrupt-free time. But to fully take advantage of it you need to have a driving focus.
Give those a try and see how you do. You will certainly find other ways the universe distracts you. The key is to recognize those events as distractions and take steps to mitigate them - don’t simply live with them.
Reducing the duration of interruptions
Interruptions will still squirm past your defenses. When this happens we need to minimize the damage. This means minimizing the duration, no matter how you need to do it.
First, the fastest way to end an interruption is to defer it. Ignore the query until you complete your work effort, if that is an option. If not ask to return the call, or tell them you will swing by sometime later. It’s important to follow through on this - if you do not, the next time they will be harder to deflect.
Second, if you cannot avoid an interruption, get it over with as soon as possible. Research shows that the duration has more impact than how the interruption occurredGloria Mark: The Cost of Interrupted Work: More Speed and Stress, University of Informatics, University of California. . Instant or text messages are the hidden danger here. We don’t recognize them as an interruption because we believe we can multitask (Spoiler alert: We can’t). We continue to work yet we still need to mentally track that conversation. The most effective path forward is to switch to a high bandwidth form of communication to reduce the duration. For example, if you cannot provide a simple reply over instant message, switch to a phone call. The interactive nature and speed at which you can communicate reduce the total duration of the interruption.
Third, teach them to fishThe fish quote is often attributed to either the Bible or a Chinese proverb. The first real occurrence is from a British story written in the 1880s. . Depending on your particular job you may have many queries for information. In many instances this information is available to the requestor elsewhere. The requestor only needs to sent in the right direction. If you hand them the information they will come to you again the next time they need it. If you give them instructionsI find pre-written text is very handy for this. Microsoft Outlook has a “quick text” feature which helps organize and insert snippets. By re-using text it allows you to respond quickly. Snippets also promote responses with well thought out information. ’ on how to retrieve it and make them do the work, they will stop asking in the future - probably. If you have to explain a process to them, defer it till after your work effort is complete.
Fourth, if possible, group interruptions. Multitasking is a myth, but if you have three interruptions pending, handle them all at once.
Resisting self-inflicted distractions
The hardest aspect of gaining effective space to work is self control. We distract ourselves, and that is much worse than someone else distracting us. The upside is that we can learn to end self-inflicted interruptions as quickly they happen. We must be vigilant and not treat our own self-inflicted distractions any different than an external distractor. Here are some ideas to help you get back to your interrupt-free time.
The Pomodoro technique is a simple, but effective, mind-hack developed by Francesco Cirillo in the 1980’s. I find it works well for me when I have shorter duration tasks or efforts that require less deep thought and more grind. You set a timer for 25 minutes and promise yourself a five minute break at the end. For me there is something about knowing that I will soon get 5 a minute break that helps me stay focused. In my experience, however, this is too short for larger work efforts. If it takes 25 minutes to get to full efficiency - we should not be taking a break at that point. I recommend this process, but using a 55 minute work period.
Offload any unrelated thoughts or concern that arise by jotting it down on a blank to-do list as they cross your mind. This is very handy for tracking unrelated things you think of that threaten to distract you. Add it to the to-do list. Later you can run down the list and address them. By placing it on a list you allow your brain to forget about it faster.
Set a timer so you can forget about the next appointment or task. A timer will let you stop worrying about the time and missing your next meeting. And since you have turned off e-mail you won’t get meeting reminders.
Refresh your focus with a short breathing exercise of your choice. This is like a short meditation but deep breathing will oxygenate your body and brain moreMy current favorite is from Dr. Andrew Weil as technique to help you fall asleep. I find that during the day it very quickly clears my mind and let’s me refocus on the tasks at hand. YouTube video .
Practice meditation to increase mindfulness. Meditation is about training the mind to keep watch over itself (mindfulness). It will both help you stay focused longer but also realize you are drifting much sooner. Science is finally catching up with how meditation can improve focus.
Move around. Sometimes the body needs to stretch, or needs a change of venue to shake things up. Find something you need to think about and take a quick brisk walk. You can noodle around your issue while you walk and a bit of increased heart rate will help you think clearer.
Consider a break. You only have so much focus to go around and if you have been at this for a while maybe your body is trying to tell you something. You can always set aside time later in the day to refocus.
You will have moments of distraction but these suggestions will reduce them. Remember that distractions will come up, and be kind to yourself when it happens. Do not fret over how many times it happens, and gently refocus. Buddhism talks about the monkey mind or “Kapicitta.” The Buddha described it as: ‘Just as a monkey swinging through the trees grabs one branch and lets it go only to seize another, so too, that which is called thought, mind or consciousness arises and disappears continually both day and night.’ Our goal here is the remove as many of the branches as possible, leaving only the ones we would want to visit intact. You will not get rid of them all, and learning to see when you are on the wrong branch becomes important. If this happens, you are not a failure, gently urge your monkey mind to jump back to a relevant branch.
The impact of interruptions is greatly underestimated and unnoticed. By having a framework to identify interruptions we give them a shape we can recognize. Once we can see them in our day to day work, we can take countermeasures.
Set up a block of time to work uninterrupted
Prevent interruptions from happening
Reduce the impact of any interruptions that do happen
Have some tricks to deal with your mind
Interruptions will never be completely eliminated. But your next work effort will be much more effective if you follow this structure. When you have a feeling of of deep productivity a sense of accomplishment will follow.
For further reading on the topic of interruptions consider reading:
“Deep Work” by Cal Newport
“Flow” by Mihaly Csiksgentmihalyi
Composed on March 27, 2018
Bill is a voracious learner who believes every process or methodology has something worth stealing. Over three decades of IT experience, and his own Fortune 100 development department, provide the confidence to experiment and push the boundaries of how we think about development, developers, and methodologies. The mantra is to improve even a little every day, but have the five year vision in mind. Learn more about Bill by clicking here.