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Work Smart

The Hidden Costs Of Interruptions At Work

What all those "Got a minute?" interruptions cost in loss of job satisfaction and productivity may surprise you.

[Photo: Arman Zhenikeyev via Shutterstock]

When people talk about "the interruption culture" in today’s workplace, there’s a tone of resignation. It’s as though there is nothing that can be done about it; interrupters must be permitted to continue no matter how injurious to productivity, job satisfaction, and work/life balance. We all just have to do our best to shield ourselves from it.

It’s bizarre. What other destructive force is permitted to churn its uninhibited way across your enterprise? Why grant a pass to interrupters?

There are two good reasons interruptions are tolerated:

  1. People honestly don’t realize how costly and insidious interruptions are.
  2. They don’t know how to curtail interruptions in a professional way.

High Cost In Productivity

According to Basex research, interruptions cost the U.S. economy $588 billion a year. If you’re tolerating the interruption culture at your company, you are jeopardizing your profits.

Further research by a workplace training company found that when employees are asked to formally calculate the time they lose to interruptions, they routinely come up with 40%-60% of their most productive time; that's about 3-5 hours every day.

High Cost In Morale

And there’s more: Interruptions are brutal on employee morale, because they entrain a whole downward spiral of dispiriting developments.

First, there is the diversion itself, taking your employees off task after they have assembled the resources and thinking necessary for that particular task. Then there is the restart—reassembling the resources, thoughts, and readiness. There is the loss of momentum caused by the initial distraction from the original purpose. There is growing frustration from having to rebuild those pathways, which dissipates the energy and enthusiasm that work thrives on.

Interruptions often contribute to errors, creating quality problems and re-work. And above all there is distress—irritability, worry, and the added pressure of having less time to do what they’ve been trying to get done.

So that nice, polite question your interrupters ask, "Got a minute?" You don’t just give up a minute. You sacrifice your energy, enthusiasm, and work enjoyment.

Just reading that previous paragraph was distressing, wasn’t it? If all that fallout means employees have to work longer hours to get their work done, that’s a big cost. When good employees go day after day after day without being able to get their work done, they are likely to leave, saddling you with all the replacement costs, but leaving the replacement in the same situation that caused the good employee to leave!

How To Stop Paying The Price

Eliminating the interruption culture at your company means that managers and employees need to learn these five new, but entirely learnable skills:

1. Personalize the Cost. First, to give them the motivation they need to absorb these skills, they need to calculate the time they lose to interruptions—and not just the interruption itself but all the rest of the downward spiral. Until they realize that they are losing precious, irreplaceable time to people who interrupt them, they will not have the desire or the courage to do what comes next.

2. Time Lock for an Interruption-Free Period. Time locking means carving out a specified period of time to devote to an important task that demands the employee’s best energy and undivided attention. It means disciplining themselves to allow no interruptions other than real emergencies. It means politely explaining why they’re time locking, why it’s in the interrupters’ best interest, and letting them know how and when they will follow up, and finally making sure they are comfortable with the explanation and plan. Those skills are not intuitive, but they are learnable and valuable.

3. Focal Lock Against Yourself. We are all willing victims of the interruption culture when we create our own diversions. Certainly, the Internet has expanded the interruptive possibilities with emails, texts, and mobile phones, but long before these devices were invented, we were all capable of interrupting ourselves by daydreaming or diversions. Focal locking is gaining mastery over our own minds. But it takes more than a decision. It requires learning techniques to undo the habits and overcome the shortcomings that have been a lifetime in the making.

4. Allocate the "Surplus" Time. Once employees have reclaimed time that used to be stolen from them by interruptions, they find themselves with the luxury of "surplus" time. In order to use the time wisely, they need to learn how to separate their obligations into the handful that are the most important contribution you can make to the company (their "critical few") and then all the rest (their "minor many"). Otherwise it is not unusual to find that employees get the allocation ratio backwards, with most of their time spent on the minor many.

5. Batch Processing. Time locking creates surplus time by preventing interruptions. Batch processing creates surplus time by letting employees efficiently dispose of repetitive or homogeneous tasks. In batch processing they learn to dispose of these tasks expeditiously, and move on to the next set. Carving out a time for batching them saves more time and energy than sprinkling them throughout the day as they come up.

The interruption culture is not inevitable, and it is not harmless. If you can eradicate it at your company, you can improve your company’s competitiveness and the job and life satisfaction of your employees.

Edward G. Brown is the author of The Time Bandit Solution: Recovering Stolen Time You Never Knew You Had, creator of Structured Time & Workflow Management, a video-based training solution, and cofounder of a culture change management consulting and training company for the financial services industry, Cohen Brown Management Group. Connect with Edward on Twitter @EdwardGBrown.

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