The toxic virus killing your productivity


"Interruption is the enemy of productivity."

Jason Fried & David Heinemeier Hanson: Rework

It's just after 7.30am and you've just sat down at your desk with a large cup of coffee ready to start work on the proposal for a major new client. You've been trying to get started on this for a few days but getting enough quiet time so that you can focus on what you need to is difficult at the best of times in your office.

At least at this time in the morning you should get at least some of this done before you get interrupted. You've reviewed the client's ideas and you're just getting down to the nuts and bolts of what you need to do when:

"It's just a quick one, I think I deleted the report that you emailed. Could you send it again please?"

"Did you hear about what happened in the marketing budget meeting yesterday?"

"Are you free on Thursday afternoon for that team meeting?"

And so it goes on.

How many times have you been in this situation? Before you know it your plan of getting some uninterrupted space to work on your proposal has just evaporated.

You've just had an attack of the interruption virus.

There's very little that's quite as devastating to productivity, quality, effectiveness and efficiency like the interruption virus. It's so widespread and virulent that in most organisations, large and small it's reached epidemic proportions.

How bad is the problem?

But just how bad is it? Gloria Mark, professor at the Department of Infomatics at the University of California, Irvine is one of many who have studied interruptions in the workplace. The group that she monitored managed to work on a project for an average of just 12 minutes 18 seconds before being interrupted. And that was for an interruption that lasted more than two minutes!

In round numbers that means that in your eight hour day you can expect to be interrupted around 40 times.

The news gets worse. Once you've been interrupted it's going to take you 23 minutes on average to get to what you were working on. That means that the task that you thought should take you an hour when you started working on it at 9am may not be done until after 5pm. And this is the norm.

The neat outline that you created for your day when you first got into the office may not survive the first interruption, let alone the thirty-seventh.

Of course this has a very real cost, financially and cognitively. If you know, or have a good idea about how much your time is worth to your company per hour then you can estimate not only how much an interruption costs in cash terms but also the cost over a week and a month. The annual cost is scary.

Then if you can face it think about the opportunity cost. Try not to have nightmares. What could you have achieved in all of the time that you've lost?

Now for some roles this is just something that has to be accepted. Receptionists are prone to interruptions just by the nature of what they do.

For others, the mental cost of each interruption is much higher. Designers, engineers and web developers are just three examples of roles where long periods of uniterrupted work are vital for them to be able to engage with what they're doing with enough focus and clarity to produce at a high level.

You can't just switch this focus on and off like a light switch. It takes time to fully immerse yourself in the task to be able to focus at this level.

"Switching your attention - even for a moment or two - can significantly impede your cognitive function for a long time to follow."

Cal Newport

Every interruption forces you to reset again. It's a lot like waking up in the middle of the night. You can't just go straight back to sleep in the REM phase you have to get there gradually.

"Does anyone here expect someone to sleep well if they're interrupted all night? I don't think anyone would say yes. Why do we expect people to work well if they're being interrupted all day at the office?"

Jason Fried, TedX MidWest, 2010

Now imagine that your senior product manager is getting interrupted as often as your receptionist. How much is that costing your business?

Are there any "good" interruptions?

You might think that encouraging interruptions to do things like quickly arrange a meeting might be beneficial because on the surface it's just faster to do that than to go back and forward on email. But of course the problem is that you're forcing the person on the receiving end of your interruption to break off there and then to respond to you, regardless of what they're working on.

The advantage of email and messaging tools like Slack is that it's passive. It doesn't require an immediate response. If you're working on a project and you're deeply concentrated on some of the intracacies you can pro-actively choose to turn off your email and messaging. Then when you've finished you can come back to your outstanding messages later.

Of course you can ask the question in an email so that the answer is just as quick as it could be if you'd asked the question verbally in the first place.

Think about the difference between "when would be a good time to have a meeting about this?" and "are you free for thirty minutes on Thursday afternoon at 2pm? If you're not available then I could meet you anytime on Friday morning or on Monday after 10am." Which question is more likely to get the meeting arranged quickly?

What messages are you sending when you interrupt someone?

There's also the danger of encouraging distractions to the point where it becomes normal and part of your office culture. As well as the significant costs that we've already talked about there are two unspoken messages that you send every time you interrupt someone.

  1. Whatever it is you have interrupt the other person about must be more important than anything that they might be working on.
  2. You don't have any way of organising whatever it is that you need to talk about so that you can put it on one side until a time that's mutually convenient.

That's not a great combination of messages to send.

Longer term cost of interruptions

There's a longer term cost to all of this. If you know that you work in an interruption culture you simply won't get fully mentally engaged with anything that requires deep, focused work because at least subconsciously you'll be expecting to be interrupted.

This in turn leads to a longer and longer work day, not because you have lots more work to do but because everything just takes so much longer to complete as you put off projects that need uninterrupted time to the early morning, late evening or weekend.

What can you do to cut down on the interruptions in your office?

Start by acknowledging that interruptions are not a necessary evil or accepting them as the unchangeable status quo. They are preventable. Think about the number of times that you have a genuine crisis or emergency that is so important and urgent that it has to be dealt with there and then. That's what you'd term a necessary interruption.

Get an idea about how bad the problem is. Spend a few days in the office just making a note about how many times you're interrupted and how long it takes you to get back to what you were working on.

Cut out the "good" interruptions and start using passive communication tools like email and messaging more effectively.

Make an agenda list of all of the different items that you have to discuss with other people. Have one short five minute conversation to go through your list. It's so much more effective than interrupting someone to deal with each of the items on your list separately.

Every time you're tempted to interrupt someone think of the unspoken messages that you're sending. Ask yourself "is the thing that I have to talk about the single most important item that I have to work on right now? Will my working world grind to an immediate halt if I don't get a response right now? Can I do something else and come back to this later?" Once you've answered those questions think again about whether or not you need to interrupt someone right now. The times when you do need to interrupt are going to be far fewer than you think.

Make sure that you have the tools and system in place to handle interruptions when you're on the receiving end. David Allen has a great video about how to do that.

If you're in the enviable position of being able to close your office door, book a meeting room to yourself or go to your favourite coffee shop to make sure that you get some uniterrupted time than take full advantage of the opportunity.

If you're a manager try experimenting with "non-interruption" periods throughout the week. Give yourself and your team explicit permission to switch off your phones, close your email clients and just concentrate on getting valuable work done.

Finally, try to stay positive! That's much easier said than done. But after all you never know what the next interruption may be about. It might just be a great opportunity.

Implement just one or two of these suggestions to cut down on the interruptions in your office and you'll see a positive change very quickly. Make a few changes and you'll watch the productivity of your organisation soar. Not only will you all get much more meaningful work done but the quality of what you're doing will increase and mistakes decrease. You'll also experience a sense of reduced frustration and stress.

Are you suffering from the interruption virus in your company? Have you found innovative ways of dealing with the problem? Why not leave a comment below.

More resources

Jason Fried "Why work doesn't happen at work" TedX MidWest 2010
Cal Newport's blog



Chris Beaumont