Interruptions: Friend or Foe?

You know when you’re trying to focus on something that requires a lot of concentration and then something else demands your attention… you shift your focus for just a minute to read an e-mail, look at a pop-up chat or find an answer to a colleague’s question… and that concentration is lost. It takes time to get back into the flow, and if you’re constantly interrupted, you may never even get there. Or you’re working on a massive project, trying to piece it all together, and then someone demands that you focus on what THEY need from you NOW, for their project. For example, as a marketing guy or an online content producer you may think “Why didn’t you tell me you’d need this from me, I could have planned for it!” when that business manager gives you a deadline that’s tomorrow because that’s when the product will be launched.

Many things can affect how many interruptions occur during a work day. As can be assumed, working in multiple teams, work roles or projects leads to more sources of interruption. Too many interruptions can be harmful — for example, the stress levels have been shown to increase with the number of perceived interruptions of work. Interruptions can be caused by anything from a colleague coming to your desk to chat about something, work-related or not, to a systemic issue in the organization that repeatedly causes interruptions in your work.

But could you do entirely without interruptions?

Perhaps not. Open office settings can be full of interruptions, but the conversations overheard from the next table can also be invaluable for advancing your work, avoiding unnecessary work or helping to create new ideas. Often when people can choose freely where they sit, the same groups tend to sit together or close to each other. Obviously, this can be because they simply like each other, but very often it also means that they need each other and see the benefits of working closely together. Many people working remotely from home say that they often miss out on informal discussions around their desk, randomly hearing something important.  And what that colleague said to interrupt your thought process might actually be a vital piece of information that you needed.

It’s probably impossible and even unnecessary to try to get rid of all interruptions, and people are different in the way they react to interruptions. So how do you reduce the number of harmful interruptions and still keep the good ones?  Think about it - which kinds of interruptions help you, your team and your organization? Which ones do you want to get rid of? Here are some generally useful things you can consider in your work setting:

1. Structure

Synchronise work, make road maps. Having a clear structure to projects or processes can be of great help when trying to minimise the number of harmful interruptions in work. This does not mean deciding everything in advance to the last detail, but rather mapping out whose input will be needed at which stage of the project and paying special attention to the overlap and flow between tasks and roles. Where does my job meet yours or when is someone else dependent on what we do as a team? This will help that marketing guy or online content writer be aware of what’s coming, instead of hearing that “it’s needed NOW”, causing other tasks to be put on hold. If you’re that guy, you probably know what I mean. If you’re the other guy, you may want to consider planning ahead a bit more. It really pays off!

2. Anticipate

Make it a task to keep an eye on interruptions. Many interruptions and annoying unnecessary work comes from processes we don’t actively pay attention to in the daily grind of work. However, many interruptions and disruptions of work flow could be avoided if someone did pay attention. There is a huge amount of information floating around in organisations and outside of them, giving clues as to where the problem areas may lie in the future. Actively keeping communication going, asking people questions, anticipating new tasks and picking up signals of changes in the environment is something that deserves more attention in many teams and organizations. Some teams even have a role that is dedicated to picking up all the outside interruptions and sorting them out, so that the others can stay focused on their main tasks.

3. Communicate

Come up with principles for prioritizing. In a team it’s important to discuss the basic principles for prioritizing tasks when there are multiple tasks requiring attention simultaneously, so that it’s not only up to the individual to decide what to focus on. Depending on what type of work you do, the principles may differ, but they should be a support system to lean on - one that is relevant to your work setting. And when asking for a colleague to do something for you, it’s important to define the real urgency of what is being asked - do I really NEED this, or do I just WISH that my colleague would help me out? And if I NEED it, do I really need it right now or can it wait until my colleague has a good moment for it? Sometimes things really are urgent and interrupting someone’s work is necessary, but more often both the necessity and timeframe can be negotiated.

In case you’re really interested in this topic, massive amount of research on the topic can be found here.

Or, you can ask one of the coaches on Coachademy for personal advice and tips.


About Mari Järvinen

I’m a psychologist (MSc), currently specialising in work and organisational psychology. For 10 years, I’ve been working with the most intriguing, complex and varied workplace issues you can ever imagine. All the good things: work engagement, flow, innovation, creativity, leadership, teamwork...but also the dark side: conflicts, problems, stress, incivility and even bullying.

Currently I’m living in Amsterdam and getting immersed in the wonderful, innovative and exciting world of startups - learning about them and also volunteering to help great businesses grow and avoid some of the pitfalls along the way. Writing this blog is a part of my collaboration with Coachademy, who were kind enough to invite me to work at their office for a few hours per week. I will cover different topics depending on what pops into my mind, so let me know if there are specific topics you would like me to write about! I hope you enjoy reading it!