Navigating Interruptions at Work

Mar 21, 2024

From phone notifications to impromptu meetings, interruptions can pervade every moment of our work day — impacting our productivity and wellbeing. Learning to navigate interruptions is crucial in directing our attention, to better manage our time and energy.

So, what is an interruption? An interruption is anything that sidetracks us from what we're doing — grabbing our attention, whether we like it or not. There is nothing like being completely in the zone and in flow state, only to be pulled out if it by an interruption. 

This week, we’re diving deep into the world of interruptions and how to navigate them in the workplace. We'll discuss:

  • why interruptions are harmful,

  • external interruptions,

  • internal interruptions, and

  • how to turn an interruption into a positive thing!

Why interruptions are more harmful than you think.

You may be thinking: "Are interruptions that bad? It's just a quick 2-minute distraction. No big deal."

There are two reasons why interruptions are harmful to your workflow:

  1. It's very easy for a two-minute interruptions to turn into a two-hour one!

    Have you ever felt the frustration of being deep in concentration, only to have your focus shattered by the ding of an Instagram notification? What might seem like a brief interruption—just a quick glance at your phone—can easily spiral into an hours long scroll. Many apps are designed to be keep you spending as much time as possible on their platforms! When was the last time you spent only two minutes on a social media app?

  2. It takes a long time to get back into the flow of your work after an interruption (23 minutes in fact!)
    What many people don't realize is that the impact of interruptions extends far beyond the momentary break in concentration. When we're forced to shift our attention away from a task, it takes time for our brains to hone back into the task at hand.

    In fact, according to a University of California Irvine study, it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to refocus after an interruption.

External interruptions

External interruptions are interruptions that are out of your control. This includes text messages, phone calls, emails, last minute meetings, environmental factors like noise, etc. 

Here are a few strategies you can try to limit external interruptions:

Three ideas to limit external interruptions:

🚫 Turn off notifications (email/chat/apps): Yes, this one is obvious and this is what everyone says. But we promise you: it's extremely effective. (And easy too!)

🤝 Set Boundaries with your colleagues: Clearly communicate your availability. Use techniques such as closed-door policies, "do not disturb" statuses, headphones or designated times for uninterrupted work. 

🗓 Use Interruption Time Blocks: Instead of allowing interruptions to disrupt your workflow randomly throughout the day, designate specific time blocks for handling interruptions. For example, schedule short periods throughout the day where you're available for meetings, questions, or discussions. 

Internal Interruptions

Now that we have our external interruptions under control, let's turn inward. Internal interruptions happen when you abandon an ongoing task to direct your attention to something else. These interruptions can sometimes be a much needed break, or they might be distractions caused by our own thoughts, emotions, or behaviors — such as self-doubt, procrastination, daydreaming, or multitasking.

Tools and ideas to reduce internal interruptions:

📆 Plan your interruptions in advance. Write down an “if…then” statement to use when you lose focus. For example, “if I get mentally tired working on this task, then I will clean up my email for 10 minutes and then get back to my task”

🎧 Experiment with incorporating music or background noise. It might help you get into a flow state.

💪 Develop self-regulation strategies. For example, if you find yourself constantly checking social media, use a technique like the "5-second rule" to refocus your attention on productive activities. The 5 Second Rule by Mel Robbins is when you count down from five to one over the course of five seconds and get back to your task when you reach number 1.

🤗 Be kind to yourself. Acknowledge that internal interruptions are a natural part of the human experience. Practice self-compassion and offer yourself understanding and encouragement. 

Celebrating Interruptions

Our last recommendation for handling interruptions is to CELEBRATE them! We encourage you to accept that we're all flawed human beings who get interrupted or distracted sometimes. In fact, we recommend going as far as keeping a ta-da list of all the interruptions today.

For those of you who are new to the blog, a ta-da list is the opposite of your to-do list. Instead of all the things you need to do, list everything you have accomplished. Now let's add all the times you were interrupted.

  • Maybe you received a phone call from a good friend during the day you accepted because you knew it would be a great connection. Yes, it interrupts your workflow flow, but that connection was something you needed at that moment. Add that to your ta-da list.

  • Maybe you were procrastinating on finishing your report and decided to clean instead — and now you have a clean room! Add that to your list too.

  • Or maybe you scrolled too long on Instagram, and followed two local artists whose posts moved you. What a beautiful source of inspiration for the future too!

Putting all this into practice.

We practice these tips and strategies every day in our focused community sessions. We open each session by closing out tabs, turning off notifications, as well as signing out of email and slack. Many new members are shocked by how much more they get done with just these few steps!

I hope to see you in some sessions this week! Come eliminate interruptions with us, or if any slip through, we'll be there to celebrate with you! 😎

— Suliel