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Interrupted, Again!

| October 2, 2018

by Jim Bruce

In last week’s Tuesday Reading “Sleep”, I suggested that one of the ways to address sleep deprivation is to manage your work calendar aggressively, enabling you to complete more of your work before you to go home in the evening. One of the tactics I suggested there was for you set aside a specific time each day for people to drop in for those short “do-you-have-a-moment” conversations, otherwise known as interruptions. This week, I want to go a bit deeper into the subject of interruptions and how to address them.
Interruptions come in several “flavors:” People ­– those who report to you, your peers, those you haven’t yet met, etc. – knock on your door or stick their head in if you don’t have a door or if you have one and it’s open and ask whether you have a moment. If you are in a cubicle farm, they may just appear and start talking, or in an open plan office, it can be even worse as people talk from desk-to-desk interrupting you as well as those working at nearby desks. Add to that the interruptions created by audible signals announcing the arrival of email, text messages, tweets, and phone calls and you reacting on that signal. All of these events create an interruption in the work you, and perhaps others, are doing.
Two interesting things in all of this is that not all interruptions come from others and not all interruptions are disruptive. Yasmina Kharma,1 writing in the Beeye blog, identifies four different types of interruptions and classifies them based on their source and the type of interaction:
•  Internal Source (i.e., you, interrupting yourself)
     – Interaction: Switch to another task related to the work you are doing
     – Distraction: You distract yourself from the work you are doing to do something entirely different and unrelated
•  External Source (i.e., from another person or a device)
     – Interaction: Someone comes with information related to the task you are working on
     – Distraction: Someone or some device distracts you from your work.
We easily forget that sometimes we interrupt the work we’re doing. For example, a thought arrives, unsummoned, that reminds me of a related facet of the task I am working on that I was ignoring.  Or, a thought arrives reminding me of a high priority task that I promised to do before I started work on what I am actually working on now. Since honoring my commitments is very important to me, I stop work on my task and turn to the work I had promised to do.
Interruptions from another individual might relate directly to the task I’m working on, and though an interruption, it may be very valuable.
The remaining group of interruptions are those that come from another person or a device, such as my smartphone alerting me to a call or beep announcing the arrival of a new email or text, that disrupts my work.
Gloria Mark,1 associate professor in the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences at the University of California, Irvine has found that the typical office worker gets only 11 minutes between interruptions.  Petra Neiger’s research2 found that it takes about 20-25 minutes after the interruption to get back to where you were in your work before the interruption.  Mark’s findings also suggest that individuals interrupt themselves almost as much as they are interrupted by external sources. Further, research at Carnegie Mellon University, reported in the NY Times, has shown that it may be possible to train your brain for disruptions, thereby reducing their impact, even though you don’t know when they might occur.More research is needed in this area.
In summary, “Because your day only has so many hours in it, a handful of small interruptions can rob you of the time you need to achieve your goals and be successful in your work and life. More than this, they can break your focus meaning that you have to spend time re-engaging with the thought processes needed to successfully complete complex work.”4 Edward Brown, writing in “The Time Bandit,”5 suggests, based on his work, that as much as 40-60% of your work day can be “stolen” by “time bandits,” his name for interrupters.
So, interruptions are real and most likely will take time away from the time you have available to do meaningful work. The question, then, is what can you do to reduce the number of interruptions, deal with those that cannot not diverted into my new daily plan, and then enable me to refocus? Here are a number of suggestions:

1.  You begin by admitting that interruptions are a problem that you have and make a commitment to do something about it. Without a commitment to take specific action, it will likely be just talk. Your goal is to reduce unnecessary interruptions, and except for those which are both important and urgent, corral them into times on your calendar which you have designated for that purpose.

2.   Your goal is to structure your days so that you have time to do your work without unnecessary interruption. Since you do need to interact with others, it means that you need to find a way to structure what would otherwise be a string of interruptions – people interrupting your work, phone calls you would need to take, email you need to respond to, etc. Others have found it helpful to schedule interruptions that are not both urgent and important (U&I) to some regular times on your calendar each day. (You will still need to take the U&I interruptions as they occur.) Individuals can sign up to have a short meeting or a phone call with you at specific designated times. Similar to faculty office-hours.

3.  To get a grasp on how big this problem is for you, beginning now, keep an “interruptions” log. Every time you are interrupted by an unexpected visitor to your desk, or the sound of one of your devices announcing a call, a text, an email, etc., write down who or what interrupted you, what you were doing that was interrupted, why you were interrupted, the length of the interruption, and its importance (a number 0-5) and urgency (0-5). And, so you can more easily get back to where you were working when you were interrupted, also write down (not necessarily in the log), your last thought and the next thing you were going to do, or, if you were reading, make note of where you were. After you’ve collected data for a couple of weeks, analyze the data to better understand the magnitude and pattern of your problem and to inform your actions.

4.  Create a calendar for four weeks that is large enough for you to list all the events for each day. (Worst-case, print 28 days of a full-page daily calendar. And tape them to a wall.) Your goal here is to find a reasonable, meaningful way to restructure how you work and meet with people. Begin by walking through your commitments for the coming month. I’m sure that you have some regular meetings that occur every week or two at the same time. Be sure to pencil them in. Then think about the time each day you want to set aside for your work, times where you do not want to be interrupted except for issues that are both urgent and important. Even if you do not have specific items now, you know that there will be work each week that only you can do. For example, if you have a lot of late-notice projects each week, you may want to hold as much as half your time for this work. Use the information you obtained from the analysis of your “interruptions log” as you develop this calendar outline.
Other things you might consider as you plan out your calendar include setting aside several regular times during the day where you catch up on your email and text messages, listen to voice mail and return phone calls. Given the volume of email, phone calls, etc. you have, you might need to set aside as much as an hour each morning and each afternoon to do this. Scheduling these times for the same hour each day will help your team and others remember when they can have a short interaction with you.
And, you may also want to set aside time, after each period of intense work, to take a short break, getting up from your desk, stretching, walking around. There is a lot of evidence that suggests that short breaks, and particularly ones where you can get outside for even 10 minutes, are very effective in restoring your brain’s energy level and in strengthening your memory. (I discussed this in the December 12, 2017 Tuesday Reading “Take a Break.”)

5.  Communicate your plans to your team, your peers, your manager, anyone you interact with frequently. Explain that what you are trying to do is to regularize your day so that you can get more accomplished. Assure them that you want to continue to hear their input and to interact with them on their work. Having regular meetings – 20 minutes, 30 minutes, an hour, whatever is useful and appropriate – with people you need to meet with on a regular basis will be helpful.

6.  Two other things. Since interruptions have become so usual, it will be necessary to have some visual signal that you wish not to be disturbed. A sign on a closed door or at the entry to your cube saying what the potential interrupter should do – sign up for a time on a schedule by the door or electronically, etc. – will be helpful. (If you have no door or sit in a cubical you might want to rearrange where you sit so that people cannot make eye contact as they begin to walk in. This will act as a deterrent.) Also, if small conference rooms are available nearby, you might sign up for one and take your work there when it’s important to not be interrupted.
Finally, learn to say “No” politely. When (not if) you do get interrupted, have a phrase that you always use to start (and end) a conversation when you are too busy to talk. For example, when you see someone coming toward you when you don’t want to be interrupted, you might say something like “I’m in the middle of something now. Could you check my calendar and sign up for one of the short slots later today or tomorrow, or if more time is needed, send me a meeting request.” This lets the individual know that you know she or he needs to talk with you and that it’s up to him or her to take the next step.
Interruptions happen to every one of us. What matters is how you deal with them – eliminating any unnecessary interruptions and reducing the time lost to recovering from interruptions that do occur. The ideas here are ones that others have found helpful. You may find some of them helpful to you as well. I hope that you’ll give them a try.
Make this a great week for you and your team.  .  .  .  jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates.  He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.

  1. Too Many Interruptions at Work?, Business Journal, June 2006
  2. Petra Neiger, 6 Jaw-Dropping Facts About Workplace Interruptions and What You Can Do, training, November 2017.
  3. Bob Sullivan and Hugh Thompson, Brain, Interrupted, The New York Times, May 3, 2013.
  4. Mindtools, Managing Interruptions – Maintain Focus, Keep Control of Your Time.
  5. Edward G. Brown, The Time Bandit: Recovering Stolen Time You Never Knew You Had, The Cohen Brown Picture Company, 2014.

Other reading:

  1. Kristina Schneider, Top 6 Strategies for Managing Interruptions in the Workplace, Ultimate Estate Planner, March 2015 Newsletter. 
  2. Kosio Angelov, The Surprisingly Practical Way of Handling Interruptions, High Performance Style.
  3. Larry Alton, 7 Tips for Dealing With constant Interruptions, Huffington Post, July 2018.
  4. MindTools Content Team, Managing Interruptions, MindTools.