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August 28, 2009

Allowing Interruptions

I was teaching a class the other day and an interesting debate occurred.  When I was talking about interruptions and having control over when to allow them or not, it became very apparent that a few of the participants felt that if the phone rang or an email popped up, they had to stop what they were doing and allow the interruption.  When I asked why, the response was “because it might be urgent”. 

Let’s assume a few things here:

  1. The person sending you an email or calling you is not in the cubicle next to yours.  Therefore, they have no idea if you are sitting at your desk or not. 
  2. It’s not policy in your organization to answer all calls and respond to all emails as soon as they are received.
  3. You are not sitting at a customer service counter.

So basically, you’re in your office or cubicle diligently working away.  The task you are working on requires your attention and if you kept at it, you would be done in 30 minutes or less.  What’s more productive?  Finishing your task, or allowing the interruption?  Well, let’s see…

 A study was performed at two West Coast high-tech firms where cubicle dwellers were observed in the chaos of modern office life.  The study included more than 1,000 hours of observation to note how many times the employees were interrupted and how long each employee was able to work on any individual task.  Here’s what they found: 

  1. Each employee spent only 11 minutes on any given project before being interrupted and whisked off to do something else.
  2. Even worse, each 11 minute project was itself fragmented into even shorter 3 minute tasks, like answering e-mail, answering the phone or reading a web page.
  3. Each time a worker was distracted from a task, it would take, on average, 25 minutes to return to that task.
  4. Even worse, when the interruption was over, the office workers appeared to literally forget what task they were originally working on.

The biggest problem with interruptions is not really the interruption at all.  It’s the havoc they wreak on our short term memory – hence “What the heck was I working on?”

So the next time you’re focused and working on a task and an email pops up or the phone rings ask yourself:  How much more time do I need to finish the task at hand before allowing an interruption?”  If its 30 minutes or less, don’t allow the interruption, finish your task and see how great you feel.

Oh, one more interesting observation in this study – only 1% of the interruptions were actual emergencies.

Make it a productive day!

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