Pardon, But An Interruption Doesn’t Necessarily Divert Your Day

When you take your eyes of the task at hand, you lose your productivity. But if you can’t be interrupted, you lose your communication. So how do you make the most of both?

Pardon, But An Interruption Doesn’t Necessarily Divert Your Day
[Image: Flickr user Istolethetv]

To use the language of computer programming, interruptions can either be a bug or a feature: that is, they can either stymy your productivity or muddy your creativity, or, they can allow for higher bandwidth communication between clients, colleagues, and yourself, thus making you all the more agile.


So is there a way to maximizing the benefits of interruptions while minimizing the costs? After reviewing the research, we think so. But first, we need to understand the good, the bad, and the interruptedly ugly.

What interruptions do(n’t) do

Divesting–and then re-investing–our concentration has its costs. Every time you get interrupted while you’re steeping yourself in a task, like by an urgent email or a tap on your shoulder, you naturally turn your concentration from the task at hand to the one that just fell in your lap.

But when you pick that task up out of your lap, especially if its a novel or complex one, you have to pay a transaction cost of loading the problem into your mind: University of California—Irvine business professor Gloria Mark says that every major interruption costs you 23 minutes of your time, potentially eating up hours of your day.

Additionally, research shows that if we want to allow for our most unique ideas to emerge, we need to conceive of them in solitude. How so? Because people tend toward social cohesion, the behavior where people agree to stuff they don’t really agree with–a phenomena which, by the way, Jeff Bezos hates.

You can see why in the case of most brainstorming sessions: people tend to agree with the loudest person in the room. Every interruption, then, is like a mini-meeting, skewing the individual vision we had in mind.

However, interruptions can be of benefit: Behance’s William Allen has argued that interruptibility is an asset, since being able to talk to someone face-to-face (or at least Skype-to-Skype or Gchat-to-Gchat) saves on minutes and hours spent toiling in email. Allowing yourself to be interrupted, in other words, allows you to increase the bandwidth of your team’s communication, which can be crucial if you’re trying to be more responsive to whatever madness is within your midst today.


Debug the bugs, feature the features

Ok, so how do we get ourselves in a situation where we can be productively interrupted and still enjoy creativity-encouraging solitude?

One option is to embrace the cave: Northwestern management professor Leigh Thompson told us that productive collaboration has a rhythm between the cave, where you do your work alone and get the deep, thoughtful stuff done, and the commons, where you get feedback and can compare notes on the project at hand.

Another is to invest in a No-Talk Thursday, as 37Signals founder Jason Fried encourages. Take the first Thursday of the month and declare that no one can talk to each other for the afternoon–and thus give everybody in the office four hours of deliciously uninterrupted time.

Lastly, you can structure your time to talk. Alexa von Tobel, the founder of LearnVest, tells of how her hip personal finance startup handles the question of questions:

At LearnVest, we encourage our summer interns not to ask questions until 5 p.m. It might sound counter-intuitive, but by building in a time for more in-depth interaction, it means everyone on the team can stay focused and get work done during the day, and the interns learn how to prioritize their time. I’ve also created a master schedule that tells my team when I’m available to sign documents, hold meetings, and so on.

Add that to the list of things radical transparency can do for you: it makes you all the more efficient.

How do you handle interruptions? Tell us in the comments.


Hat tip: Inc.


About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.