Working with interruptions

You might be working in an office or on a building site, studying for an exam or or even trying to finish off your expense claim so you can go home on time. For a change. And then it happens. An interruption. Annoying. And something worse: interruptions reduce your productivity by up to 1/3rd. And to add insult to injury, they increase mistakes and diminish your ability to solve problems and complete tasks.

The trouble is, of course, that life is filled with interruptions. For instance, we know that people who work primarily with information (i.e. most office workers) are interrupted every four to 11 minutes. The telephone rings, someone needs to see you or it’s time to pack up and go to a meeting – there’s always something to get in the way of what you’re trying to do.

You can prevent some interruptions, and so you should when you’re doing something that needs concentration and thought. Close your office door if you have one and put up an ‘On a deadline’ or ‘Concentrating!’ sign to encourage people to think twice before entering.

Angling your desk and chair away from walking paths lessens distractions, too, because it’s harder for people to catch your eye and stop for a chat.

At work, you can set time aside to concentrate and block it out on your calendar as ‘quiet time’, ‘planning time’ or ‘meeting with myself’ so others sharing your calendar can see not to disturb you. You can turn off your audible and visual incoming email alerts and divert your phone or switch it to voicemail; when you do that, mute your incoming messages so you aren’t tempted to listen to them. (I’ve been to that many meetings at people’s desks and they do the right thing and switch their phone to voice mail but don’t mute the messages; inevitably, the phone rings, the meeting stops and the desk owner freezes, waits for the message machine to pick up, and proceeds to listen intently to the message. Don’t do that.)

In some workplaces, it’s normal to interrupt people. But whatever you do, don’t fall prey to thinking: ‘I won’t be able to finish this, so I’ll do it later’, because that guarantees you’ll never get anything done.

Often, the most sensible thing you can do is to simply make a start. Work on big tasks in the time between interruptions. After spending several shorter blocks of time on a big task, one concerted effort generally sees that job completed and crossed off your ‘To do’ list.