Instant Productivity Booster: Minimize Interruptions

May 6, 2011
5 Min Read

Do you ever feel like you put in a busy 8 to 10 hour day, yet you have nothing to show for it? In my last blog post, I introduced one way to boost your productivity without upping your working hours: quit multitasking. Multitasking is neurologically less efficient than it seems to be and it will  zap your brainpower prematurely. But many of us have very complex or fast-paced jobs, where focusing on one thing isn't always practical or feasible.

So if you must multitask, rest assured that you can still improve your productivity by minimizing interruptions. Interruptions to your work flow have a similar draining effect as multitasking, but perhaps it is even more pronounced, since an interruption comes more suddenly and less voluntarily. Interruptions can also come from multiple sources and can be shockingly frequent. Some data suggests we might be interrupted as much as 56 times per day.

Gloria Mark, who researches multitasking in the workplace, studied two West Coast high-tech firms and found that employees spent just 11 minutes working on something before being interrupted. Each time a worker is distracted from a task, it takes 25 minutes to get back to it. That is if they return to the task at all. Mary Czerwinski , an expert in interruption science and researcher at Microsoft, found that 40 percent of the time employees end up being distracted away from the original project when the interruption ends.

While perhaps you cannot ignore all interruptions at the office, you can minimize them. And you can also quit interrupting yourself.

Practical ways you might minimize interruptions:

  • Disable pop-up notifications for Outlook and other applications.
  • Silence your ringer and allow unexpected incoming phone calls to go to voicemail.
  • Check incoming messages, emails, tweets, and posts on an interval schedule of your choice.
  • If you have an open door policy, close it for an hour a day or when working on a deadline.
  • Experiment with a different working schedule; you may find you get more work done early in the morning.
  • Experiment with a different work setting; try a library, conference room, coffee shop, or a park bench.
  • Schedule weekly meetings with your team where you field questions, instead of answering them as they arise.
  • Think ahead: brainstorm ways to quickly end an interruption made by the overly chatty coworker with too much personal news.
  • Instead of leaving Gmail/TweetDeck/Facebook/news-site-of-choice open all day, limit it to mornings or late afternoons.

Know when to use these strategies. You don't want to become the office recluse or unreachable, but when work needs to get done, be aware of what you need to do to allow that to happen.

If you have been a constant multitasker, this may take some time for your brain to get used to focusing. You may find that even when you close everything down, you still have urges to click somewhere or check something. But if you persist in practicing to focus, your ability to concentrate will come with time. Every time you give in to an interruption, you train your brain to remain on high alert and in shallow thinking mode. But every time you are able to resist, and keep your focus, you are training your brain engage with your work in a deeper way.

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