Workplace interruptions are not new. In today’s world, however, there are more ways to stop somebody’s thought flow than ever before. Besides the casual popping by your desk or workspace, interrupters IM, e-mail, text, and call you, almost simultaneously at times. Let’s admit it, we’ve all been the interrupters, as well as the interrupted. When someone is deep in thoughts, her or his concentration and mental energy need to go toward the task at hand. Frequent interruptions are not only productivity killers, they are significant energy suckers and work satisfaction destroyers.
Use Productivity Tools Responsibly
Here’s the paradox: We have all kinds of productivity tools in the spirit of collaboration. But our behaviors and diminished patience levels to get an immediate response may create the opposite effect to what we want to gain from these tools. I want to make it clear: I’m not saying productivity tools are bad. Tools are not bad. How we behave and use these tools is where the breakdown is. We all know people who have become irresponsible when it comes to assessing when it really is an emergency to interrupt somebody and when a question can wait. The quick ping “when will you send me the report?” followed by additional quick-ping instructions take the worker away from what he or she is doing, resulting in having to backtrack his or her thoughts. The interrupter’s expectation is that the interrupted will respond right away. If not, the interrupter often resorts to other forms of getting that instant response without realizing the interrupted may be heads down thinking, planning, writing, presenting, or working on the very deliverable the interrupter is anxiously asking about.
Think Before You Interrupt
Numerous studies have shown the impact of frequent workplace interruptions. Many of these studies were done before the proliferation of social media and other real-time technologies, so it would be interesting to quantify how things have changed. We know our attention span went from 12 seconds in 2000 to just 8 seconds in 2013, ranking us lower than a goldfish. I suspect the effects of interruptions on performance and health may have increased even more by now, but without further evidence, let’s just consider these facts:
- People spend an average of 11 minutes on a project before they’re interrupted. It takes them on average 25 minutes to get back to the point they were at before a distraction, according to a UC Irvine study.
- Employees in cubes are interrupted 29 percent more often than people in private offices, the same UC Irvine study finds.
- Even after a 2.8-second interruption, subjects in a study doubled their error rates. And their error rates tripled after a 4.5-second distraction, says the Journal of Experimental Psychology.
- Workers who are frequently interrupted reported 9 percent higher exhaustion rates, almost as high as the 12 percent increase in exhaustion due to work overload, states the International Journal of Stress Management.
- The same publication attributed a 4 percent increase in physical health problems, such as migraines or back pain, caused by interruptions.
- The effects of interruptions on workers’ productivity, energy, and work satisfaction cost an estimated $588 billion a year in the U.S., according to the Basex Research.
There are many ways we, the interrupters, can change our behavior to make people around us more productive and less anxious. Let’s start with the most fundamental one: think before you interrupt. Ask yourself: Is this question really urgent? What happens if you don’t get an answer immediately? Would you want someone to interrupt you with the same question when you need to concentrate?
5 Ways to Reclaim Your Power Over Interruptions
Schedule focus times: Schedule “off-limits” focus times on your calendar and guard them. Instead of replying to each message immediately and separately, piece together the story from the various communications and assess their priority before responding. Respond outside of your focus times.
Set expectations: Set your IM on do not disturb (or turn it off completely) and let people know when you’ll be back. Or book a room for two hours to get your stuff done and, again, tell people when they can expect you back. People usually gasp with fear when I first talk to them about this. By responding to every interruption right away, you have trained the interrupter that this behavior is OK. It will take time and effort to retrain people on respecting your heads-down time.
Use visual cues: Agree with your team on a common sign to use during interruption-free hours and hold each other accountable for respecting that time. Headphones or a colorful sign on your desk or cube wall are a great way to tell people farther away that you’re not available.
Manage notifications: There’s one kind of interruption you can always do something about: self-interruptions. Be selective about what kind of notifications you let get through when you’re in the zone. Some 44 percent of workers in a study interrupted themselves, which means that while we blame others for interrupting us, we’re also guilty of doing the same to ourselves.
Pause: Another alarming fact is that 73 percent of interruptions typically are handled right away without any consideration for priority. Once you’ve been interrupted, pause. Write down the last thought in your head, the last thing you did or underline the last sentence you read before looking up. This will help you better retain your last idea and make it easier to return to it.
Although modern office spaces have audio privacy rooms, providing physical spaces is not enough. We need to create habits that make people feel comfortable tuning out for a while in order to focus. And as the interrupted, we need to realize we have more power over disruptions than we may think.
Petra Neiger is the founder of Red Pantz, a sustainable productivity and conscious leadership company, which combines her unique background in high-tech business management and mind-body medicine. She spent about two decades in corporate America in various leadership positions, got sick, and went back to school to study Ayurvedic medicine. Red Pantz brings together her backgrounds in management and medicine to help leaders and teams create healthy work environments with the best business outcomes. Neiger’s methods are based on proven, ancient wisdom mixed with research-backed modern science, and decades of real-world experience. She has an MBA and a Master’s degree in Ayurvedic medicine, and is a certified Ayurvedic medicine practitioner, NAMA, and a certified yoga teacher. For more information, visit: www.redpantz.com