How much of your workday is spent dealing with interruptions? You get a chat notification that pulls you away from your research. You get a text that breaks your attention from the meeting. One of your coworkers pulls you aside when you’re trying to finish up a project.
Obviously, some of these distractions are necessary, and some are practically unpreventable. But distractions steal more time from you than you might imagine—and there are some surefire strategies that can help you minimize the time you spend on unnecessary distractions (if not eliminate it altogether).
Why Interruptions Are So Costly
In the moment, interruptions don’t seem like they take much time—you might spend a few seconds reading a text, or you might catch up with a coworker after just a few minutes. But distractions are a major concern for your productivity for three main reasons:
- Focus breaking. According to research by Gloria Mark, after getting interrupted from a certain task, it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds for your mind to fully return to focusing on the central task. If you get interrupted, on average, twice an hour or more, you might never ramp up to your full focus power.
- External prioritization. When someone interrupts you with a question or a conversation, they instantly become your immediate priority, whether they deserve to be or not. This external prioritization can interfere with your own goals and priorities, and will almost never align with what’s truly most important.
- Sheer volume. These problems are magnified because of the sheer volume of interruptions. People receive about 88 emails per day, and if you include chat notifications, text messages, phone calls, and in-person communication, it’s likely that the average person is interrupted over 100 times per day, easily. Even if each interruption only costs you a minute, that’s still nearly two hours of dead time due to interruptions.
Mitigating Interruptions in an Interrupting World
Our digital world, full of instant notifications and constant interactions, is full of interactions. They’re a staple of the modern working world. So what can you do to mitigate those interruptions, and eliminate them as much as possible?
- Create a routine. First, use an online calendar or any organization method you choose to create a semi-firm routine. Establishing a routine gives you specific time for specific tasks, or groups of tasks. This makes you more focused and less prone to interruptions overall, and as an added bonus, it gives other coworkers a chance to learn your routine and understand when the best times to contact you are.
- Allow response gaps. You can also manage your interruptions by setting better expectations with your clients, coworkers, and staff. Stop responding to texts and emails as soon as you get them; instead, allow a gap of a few minutes to an hour or longer before you send the response. This will condition people to be more patient with their communications, and will give you more breathing room with the interruptions you do get.
- Schedule heads-down time and unplug. Each day, try to schedule at least some “heads-down time,” when you can work on your tasks and projects without fearing being interrupted. During these times, unplug from everything you can; turn your phone off, minimize your email window, and disable notifications. You can free up more heads-down time by canceling some of your standing meetings.
- Schedule communication time. Conversely, you can schedule more communication time; designate specific periods of time, during which you’ll be available for questions, concerns, and other conversations. Think of these as open office hours. Ideally, people will start contacting you during these designated periods, rather than throughout the day.
- Eliminate online distractions. As much as possible, eliminate your online distractions, which are their own kind of interruptions. You can use a browser extension like StayFocusd to block or limit your access to the sites that present the biggest distractions for you.
- Narrow your communication channels. You can also reduce your interruptions by eliminating at least some of your communication channels. Encouraging people to email you will funnel most of your inbound messages into one channel, so it’s easier to control and less chaotic than dealing with multiple mediums at once.
- Break big tasks into smaller tasks. Finally, try to break your big tasks and projects up into smaller tasks, and accomplish them one task at a time (with small breaks in between). Designating your focus to individual, small tasks means you’ll spend less time completely immersed, and you’ll have an easier time delaying interruptions since you’ll always be close to a break. It will also help you prioritize your work, and hopefully, become more productive.
With these strategies, you may not be able to eliminate interruptions from your workplace entirely, but you can gain more control over them, and minimize their effects on your productivity. Pay careful attention to how you’re interrupted moving forward, and don’t hesitate to make more habitual changes to improve your chances even further.