How interruptions kill your productivity. And 3 tips to reduce them.

Show me one person who makes it through a day of work without being interrupted. It’s impossible! Whether you work in an office or remotely, as part of a team or on your own, the odds that you can focus on a specific task until it’s completed without having something break your concentration are pretty much nil. So, the question is, how much does that interruption affect us? Is it something we should be concerned about or not?

Research has shown that if we’re interrupted, it takes us an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back on track. I said “if we’re interrupted” but should have said “every time we’re interrupted” because most of us are interrupted all day long. Typically, we spend only 11 minutes focused on a task before being interrupted. And that 11 minutes is typically fragmented into smaller 3-minute tasks. That adds up to an average of 20 interruptions an hour.

Now, to be fair, not all interruptions are equal. If the task you were focused on wasn’t very complex or the interruption didn’t require much of your attention (e.g. your signature on some paperwork), it won’t take a lot of time and effort for you to get back on track. And, if the interruption was related to what you were working on, it could actually help you with your task. However, we are interrupted an average of 4 times an hour by something unrelated that does require our focus and concentration. In those cases, it takes a significant amount of time and effort to get back on track.  

Another surprising finding about interruptions is how many of them are not externally driven—in fact, 44% are internally driven. That means that almost half of the interruptions we experience are ones we cause ourselves. How does that happen? Well, think about it. How often are you focused on a project, concentrating to get something done and next thing you know you’re taking a quick peek at social media? Or getting up to grab a coffee? Or googling something unrelated? Anything for a quick break from the task at hand. The problem is that a quick break is rarely ever quick.

After an interruption, we don’t usually return to the task that was originally interrupted. Instead, we switch and focus on other tasks (typically 2) before we get back to the original task. So, although most of us do resume that first task later in the day (82%), the delay and intervening tasks make it more difficult to figure out where we were and then make progress. No wonder it can feel like such a struggle to get work done!

If you’d like to reduce some of the interruptions that slow you down at work and impact your productivity, here are a few suggestions.

  • Turn off notifications – I’ve said this before and will say it again because I still see so many people who haven’t done it. If you’re one of those people, I urge you to take this step. It’s the quickest way to start disrupting our Pavlovian relationship with our digital devices, especially our phones. Every time you see or hear a notification, you are conditioned to respond to it. You might be worried you’ll miss something important but there are other ways to ensure you can be reached when it’s absolutely necessary.
  • Isolate yourself - When I worked in a corporate office, I would often book a room so I could work undisturbed for a while. Although I work at home now, I still ask my husband not to bother me for stretches of time, even when I’ve closed the door to my home office. No matter where you work, find a way to create some undisturbed time, whether it’s by physically isolating yourself or asking others to respect your productivity.
  • Stick to one thing – At the beginning of the day, choose one important task that you need to accomplish, no matter what. Write that task down on a sticky note and put it somewhere prominent, somewhere you can’t help but see it throughout the day. Use that note to re-focus your attention when interruptions occur throughout the day or when you find yourself distracted. Just keep coming back to that one thing until you get it done.
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