Interruptions: Minimize … and Utilize

Fast Company has a helpful interview on interruptions with Gloria Mark, an informatics professor at the University of California, Irvine. She talks about “When is interruption is helpful? Why can’t most of us stay on task for more than three minutes? Is the best way to achieve flow to just unplug?”

Here are some key points:

Interruptions are bad for innovation and flow:

I argue that when people are switching contexts every 10 and half minutes they can’t possibly be thinking deeply. There’s no way people can achieve flow. When I write a research article, it takes me a couple of hours before I can even begin to think creatively. If I was switching every 10 and half minutes, there’s just no way I’d be able to think deeply about what I’m doing. This is really bad for innovation. When you’re on the treadmill like this, it’s just not possible to achieve flow.

But not all interruptions are bad:

If an interruption matches the topic of the current task at hand, then it’s beneficial. If you’re working on task A and somebody comes in and interrupts you about exactly that task people report that’s very positive and helps them think about task A.

There’s been a lot of research into the psychology of problem solving that says if you let problems incubate, sometimes it helps in solving them. A good example would be a software developer who just can’t trace a bug so they put it aside and let it incubate. The answer may come back to the software developer later while he or she is working on another task. This is an example of how switching tasks may be beneficial.

The worst kind of interruptions are those that make you switch topics:

It’s generally counterproductive if you’re working on one task and you’re interrupted on a completely different topic. People have to shift their cognitive resources, or attentional resources, to a completely different topic. You have to completely shift your thinking, it takes you a while to get into it and it takes you a while to get back and remember where you were.

The ROWE Blog has a helpful take on this article that illustrates in a very concrete way the cost we pay when interrupted all the time.

The distraction that interruptions create is not the full story, however (as the interview itself discusses).  While we should seek to minimize interruptions, they are also opportunities to do good for others and be of use. You can’t — and shouldn’t — eliminate the possibility of all interruptions (at least as a constant way of life). Interruptions should be looked at as a chance to do good.

In fact, after two decades of interacting with a wide variety of senior executives, the author of the book Organized for Success has noted that “successful executives turn one key time management rule upside down: rather than closing the door on interruptions, they extract genuine value from them” (p. 10).

In fact, listen to this perspective of one senior executive:

What you are calling “interruptions” is my work. From the beginning of my career, I have seen my job as being able to facilitate, troubleshoot, run ideas by, solve problems, and just be a presence. If I had an urgent deadline, I would go into a conference room and shut the door. But that rarely happens.

Very interesting.

Here’s my take: We need to both carve out time for focused work, and then also weave into our days the flexibility to be freely available such that we can recognize “interruptions” as opportunities for productive interaction.

There is a both/and here: Minimize interruptions. And realize that there is a way to make use of interruptions for maximum effectiveness.

The best way I know to do this is to start your day early so you can segment it into a period of focused work for a few hours, followed by a time when you are more freely available.

I’m still working on this. But the most important thing to realize is that the biggest interruptions are those that we do to ourselves.

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  • Garrett Wishall

    Helpful post. I agree that getting started early and getting a good chunk of focused, uninterrupted work done early is HUGE. You are swimming upstream the rest of the day if you don’t do this.