Who among us hasn’t been deeply involved in a project at work — concentrating as your mind solves problems, arranges data, and sails toward completion — only to be interrupted by your boss or a co-worker: “Hey, you got a second?” It’s unintentional. Most of these time bandits are completely unaware of the magnificent train of thought they’ve just derailed.
You stop. You listen. You shift gears. Then, you turn back toward your project …. Where was I? How long does it take you to regain your momentum? Do you ever get those ideas back?
Interruptions and distractions are everywhere in most offices. They’re part of every workplace. And they’re not just people. They’re the clutter on your desk, the unfiled documents — both on your desk and on your computer desktop. Sure, social media is a distraction at work, but according to Jason Fried, cofounder & CEO of Basecamp, at least you choose the timing of these diversions — like the “smoke break” of old.
In addition to lost time and productivity, distractions can also cause errors. You go back to the project you were working on, and the interruption causes you to lose your place or forget a key date or component. In the health-care industry, one field where mistakes can have dire consequences, distractions and interruptions have been linked to errors in patient care. Many health-care organizations have developed systematic approaches to interruptions — a list of critical tasks that shouldn’t be interrupted — along with methods to keep them from happening.
While consequences in many other fields don’t have such extreme effects, Fried suggests that we all “make the office a better place to work,” so we don’t have to go in early or stay late just to avoid distractions and get a lot done.
What’s the solution?
Here are a few of Fried’s suggestions, as well as a few others:
- No-talk Thursdays. (Establish a day or afternoon of silence where coworkers can’t speak to each other.) This will enable you to get more stuff done because it’s uninterrupted.
- Switch from active communication (face-to-face) to passive (email, instant messaging, or collaboration products). While email or messaging is also distracting, it’s at a time of your choice.
- Cancel the next meeting if you’re in charge of it.
- Clear the space around your computer. Everything in your field of vision is distracting your thoughts. Move it to a drawer, a folder, a place where you can’t see it while you work.
- Choose to check emails and other passive communication less frequently. Very few things are so urgent that you need to read them the moment they pop up.
- Consider getting a sign for your work space that signals coworkers when you’re planning to be involved in something that needs 100% focus and uninterrupted time. Nicely let your coworkers know about this new signal and the reason for it.
- Be aware. Stop interrupting other people. Think about just how urgent your need is — will something fall apart if you don’t get it … right … this … second? If you round the corner of a colleague’s cube or office and see him or her deeply immersed in something, go back to your desk and send an email.
Some work interruptions add variety to your day and help with work relationships. (All work and no play can be dull.) But when interruptions and distractions affect your productivity and interrupt your thoughts on a regular basis, it might be time to make some changes. The time you lose isn’t just the time of the interruption; it’s also the time it takes for you to regain your momentum and to recover your ideas.