Interruptions are unavoidable. But let's dig deeper to better understand and deal with them.
Why I was wrong about interruptions at work
First of all: interruptions are part of your job. You will never avoid them all. Indeed, you should not even try to, because they bring benefits by informing you of what’s going on.
I used to think that interruptions were bad, very bad. When I work, I want to focus, because I know the dangers of multitasking. And to me, interruptions made it impossible to focus on a single task, which hurt my productivity.
But then I read an interesting paper called “Constant connectivity: rethinking interruptions at work”.
And I realized that we can control the many interruptions we experience at work. As stated in this article, “employees engage in new work strategies as they negotiate the constant connectivity of communication media”.
What I believed was a myth.
The biggest myth about interruptions at work
That myth is probably the #1 myth about interruptions at work. Simply stated, interruptions divert the employees’ attention away from their “real” work.
This perspective fails to recognize that the constant connectivity afforded by communication media may be changing the nature of knowledge work itself. In addition, employees are largely viewed as passive in the face of these interruptions. Their only response is to attend to the call for their attention. This does not take into account the various ways that employees can interact with communication technologies beyond simply responding to their alerts notifying of incoming or stored communications. (Judy Wajcman and Emily Rose, 2011)
Jennifer Robison interviewed Gloria Mark, associate professor at the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences at the University of California, Irvine, and a leading expert on work who researched workplace interruptions and she made it clear: “if interruptions make you crazy, stay out of management".
In her study, she found that the average amount of time that people spent on any single event before being interrupted or before switching was about three minutes. Three minutes! How short is that!?
What she found fascinating is that people interrupted themselves almost as much as they were interrupted by external sources (44% of the time).
The four types of “interruptions” and why some interruptions can be beneficial
She also makes the distinction between beneficial and hindering interruptions, the first kind being an interaction, and the second kind a distraction.
This distinction is highly important, since an interaction, a beneficial interruption, helps productivity.
What differentiates an interaction from a distraction is, in the case of an interaction, the interruption is related to the same working sphere at hand. (A working sphere represents something where there's a common goal, a certain group of people involved, certain resources attached, and a specific time framework and deadline.)
She found that people worked on an average of 12.2 different working spheres every day, and switched between working spheres every 10 minutes and 29 seconds on average.
An interruption can also be internal (people interrupt themselves by choice and switch to something else) or external (somebody, an e-mail or a phone call come up). Without any surprises, managers experienced far more external interruptions than internal interruptions.
To summarize, here is a matrix that represents the four types of interruptions.
What happened after an interruption? 81.9% of interrupted work was resumed on the same day and about 23 minutes were needed to resume it, which is considerable.
As we have seen so far, we tend to experience many interruptions every day (and every hour), and they can be hindering or beneficial.
Mark Murphy, founder of Leadership IQ, analyzed the results of more than 6000 people who have taken the online quiz “How Do Your Time Management Skills Stack Up?” and the stats are striking: 71% of people report frequent interruptions when they’re working, and only 29% are able to block out everything else.
More importantly: 56% of people that are frequently interrupted, reported that they often leave work wondering “did I actually accomplish anything today”? In contrast, only 33% of people feel that way when they managed to avoid all interruptions.⁂