Don’t be a victim to interruptions

In the workplace we seem to be interrupted frequently. And by interrupted I mean our concentration is broken by others, whether that be people, technology, noise etc.

Studies indicate we are being interrupted at worst every 6 minutes or at best every 11 minutes. In other words – a lot!!! What’s even more important though is if the original task required a reasonable degree of thought then it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to task once we’ve been interrupted. This has quite a negative impact on how much work we are able to process.

Great workplaces collaborate effectively so it’s reasonable to expect a level of interruption from how open plan offices are designed to activity based working environments through to our accessibility via communication tools (mobile phones, instant messaging, privatised social networks).

But when it comes to interruptions how much is too much and are we actually inviting some interruptions we could otherwise avoid?

For instance if you don’t want people to interrupt you then try the approach of not interrupting them - train others on how you want to interact with them simply by demonstrating behaviours. Show respect for others by asking, “Is now a good time to talk?” before simply launching into a conversation. Be a role model for the kind of behaviour you’d like to see from others.

If you have to deal with chronic interrupters and don’t say anything, isn’t it just accepting the behaviour? An option could be to say no I’m not available right now - can we schedule a time to talk later? Or instead of multiple separate interactions, organise a regular catch-up to communicate and address the non-urgent items as a batch.

With technology interruptions can come from various means, including the incoming email alert, phone, instant messaging etc. We do though have definitive choices as to how we interact with technology. I find 99% of roles have no need to be notified when a new email arrives so turn off the email alert. Whereas when you are processing critical work and are crunched for time then there can be a valid argument for sending incoming calls to directly to voicemail, putting the mobile phone to silent mode or making yourself unavailable on instant messaging. I don’t suggest this to be the norm but identify when you need concentration to do your best work.

I think it also depends on what your job role is.

For example, it’s reasonable to expect a fairly high number of interruptions for a person in a customer service type role whose main responsibility is to respond to questions. In other words the workload is initiated by others and probably expected to be responded to within a specific service level agreement.

Whereas a leader has more scope to plan and prioritise work even though they might have a high demand on their attention from others. The key for the leader will be to prioritise what’s important or what will have the greatest impact to achieving targeted outcomes. Deciphering important from just urgent is crucial to filtering out noise and producing results.

I should add that not all interruptions are bad. Sometimes the interruption can be positive as it provides you with important information you have been waiting for or news that motivates and inspires you to get better results.

If you want to reduce the level of interruptions then over the next week list every time you are interrupted and determine which strategy can be applied to either reduce or eliminate the interruption. If you do this then soon afterwards you too will either have reduced the level of interruptions or you won’t be a victim to interruptions.

Finally if in your work environment there’s nothing you can do about the level of interruptions, then plan for them when estimating timeframes, otherwise you will always miss committed deadlines.