Interruption Management

When Interruptions Cut Into Your Personal Productivity, Something Must Be Done.

By Steve Schumacher

I was in a meeting recently with a mid-level director. The meeting was scheduled to go for one hour. We started on time and ended on time, but what happened in those 60 minutes was far from productive. The director answered four emails, responded to seven text messages, one phone call, and two people who poked their heads in the office door.

Each time there was an interruption, I could tell by looking at his face that he had lost total concentration. In several cases I had to remind him what we were talking about. It seemed that as soon as we got back on track, there was another interruption. Since that meeting, I have had to practically go over the entire meeting, key points and action items several times.

This sort of scenario plays out over and over in businesses today. Managers find themselves trying to be sensitive to others that need their time, but at the same time finding that all of the interruptions are causing them to not be effective. The stress of trying to balance interruptions and still be productive is getting out of hand.

So, what can be done?

Studies have shown that interruptions as short as five seconds can cause up to four times as many errors than if a person is able to continually focus. Something must be done.

A few considerations for you, if you find yourself being overwhelmed by interruptions:

Identify what form the interruptions take. Over the course of a week, jot down what interruptions you experience, and the nature of them. Emails? Texts? People?

Look for trends in the type of interruptions and when they most often occur.

Come up with a plan to minimize them. You will never be able to completely eliminate interruptions. Meeting with others, and responding to others, is a big part of your job.

Once you have identified the main interruptions, plan your daily schedule so they have the least impact on your day and ability to focus.

Publicize your calendar. Let everyone know what your day entails in terms of meetings, planning time, out-of-the office time, and other hours that you have committed to.

Also, let people know what open times you have and do your best to schedule time with the people that interrupt you, if they actually need focused time with you.

Be assertive. When you do get interrupted, be tactful but direct. Let the interrupter know that you are busy, but at the same time let them know that you will make time for them when it comes available.

Of course, there will be true emergencies that require your time, but most of the time those seemingly burning issues can wait. Assertiveness means standing up for what you need, while respecting the needs of others.

Do not distract yourself with irrelevant activities. It is so easy for us to get distracted by meaningless emails and internet activities while on the job. Turn off your email notifications so you can focus.

Forward your calls or use voice mail when you must have time to put your attention on important tasks. If necessary, find another location to work that is free of distractions.

Stay on task with commitments. Often interruptions happen because people are checking on the progress of a project you have promised. Stay ahead of them by getting your parts of the project done ahead of time. Keep other people informed of your progress and do not wait for them to ask.

Be a good planner and carry through with your commitments to others ahead of schedule.

Get back on track quickly. Interruptions will happen. Bank on it. When they do, try to keep those interruptions short so you can get back on task rapidly.

Make a note to yourself about what you were thinking or working on when an interruption happens. This will help you get your mind back in gear and pick up where you left off.

All of these moments stop you from fully focusing on your important tasks. It’s not that those other things may not also be worthy of your attention. They very well may be, but when you attend to them is essential to how productive you can be. 

Most Common Interruptions

The most common Interruptions come from co-workers, as tempting as it is to blame email or instant messaging, according to an article in the Wall Street Journal. Face-to-face interruptions account for one-third more intrusions than email or phone calls, which employees feel freer to defer or ignore, according to a 2011 study in the journal Organization Studies.

Other research links frequent interruptions to higher rates of exhaustion, stress-induced ailments and a doubling of error rates.

It’s easy to turn to a neighbor for, say, tips on how to tweak a spread sheet or where to go for lunch. But such interruptions nibble away at the ability to stay on task.

Employees in cubicles are interrupted 29 percent more often than those in private offices, research from the University of California, Irvine, shows. Intercubicle traffic at one telecommunications company peaked daily from 2:30 p.m. to 4 p.m., when employees played music, talked over cubicle walls or walked among each other’s desks, according to the research published in Organization Studies.

Such patterns can be costly. Employees who experienced frequent interruptions reported 9 percent higher rates of exhaustion – almost as big as the 12 percent increase in fatigue caused by oversize workloads, according to a survey of 252 working adults published recently in the International Journal of Stress Management. Interruptions also sparked a 4 percent increase in physical ailments such as migraines or backaches, the study noted.