Build in “Planned Interruptions” to Work with More Ease

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In the course of a typical workday, each person gets interrupted about every three minutes (with an average of twenty times per hour). This equates to 160 to 200 interruptions per day. Yikes! Is it any wonder, then, that people often leave work feeling like they’ve accomplished nothing? In some cases, that’s exactly what happens, as the day is filled with interruptions and little focused time.

Interruptions pull you out of your current focus (i.e., email, report, project, or workflow) and into someone else’s world. This pull sometimes comes in the form of a friendly request such as “Can I have just a few minutes of your time,” or perhaps a hasty demand such as “I need your help with something.” Either way, generally unproductive work behavior actually creates inefficiency for both parties.

Research from Dr. Gloria Mark of the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences at the University of California in Irvine indicates that it takes anywhere between six and twenty minutes to recover and refocus after you are interrupted. So, not only are you using up time during the actual interruption, you are also expending additional time to get back on track with the work you were doing prior to being interrupted. The brain requires cycle time to process the data needed to handle the interruption, track back to the original task, remember what the original goal was, then move towards completion of that task. While you might find yourself saying, “Oh no, I’m actually great at handling interruptions and multi-tasking … it doesn’t really bother me,” chances are you find yourself exhausted at the end of the day from the mental exhaustion of interruption-driven environments.

Rather than feeling you are at the mercy of continual interruptions, you may want to consider restructuring your time at work to maximize your productivity and sense of ease. You can begin that process my identifying times for planned interruptions in which all of the small interruptions that would normally happen throughout the day are fit into buckets of time. By structuring this time into two or three spots during the day, you begin to create more focus, structure, and management of your time. This not only protects your max productivity time but also encourages others to better manage themselves throughout the day. The simple act of declaring your desire to reduce interruptions works magic—you get more disciplined at work, others group their questions prior to approaching you, and, most importantly, you save time and energy at work.

On a recent client call with Venkat, he lamented, “I feel like I can never get anything done. My whole day is just a series of interruptions from my manager and all my staff. I just have to accept that I have to work this way … even if it means that I am not doing my best work and I’m always stressed out.” Venkat seemed to accept that his work would be stressful and that interruptions were inevitable. I challenged both assumptions and encouraged him to explore how he might work with more ease. During the rest of our call, we identified the following actions he could implement to change things in his work environment:

  1. Pinpoint his hours of optimum productivity (it was 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.).
  2. Organize his meetings and schedule to allow him uninterrupted time between 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m.
  3. Determine three time blocks during the day for planned interruption (his were 9:00 a.m.-10:00 a.m., 3:00 p.m.-4:00 p.m., and 6:00 p.m.-7:00 p.m.).
  4. Communicate the idea of planned interruption to his team and indicate the blocks of time he would be available while encouraging his team members to keep the similar schedule.
  5. Pilot this new schedule for thirty days as an experiment.

Over the next month, he was thrilled with the results his actions had created. These periods of planned interruption dramatically increased Venkat’s productivity as well as his team’s. People began to respect each other’s time more, kept their questions more focused, and honored the hours available. After one month, they decided to implement planned interruptions as a standard practice going forward. In fact, because they now have structures to handle the interruptions, they can focus more fully on their work, generate better solutions, and engage in more innovative thinking.

How might you begin to build in planned interruptions during the course of your workday? Can you target non-interrupt time and also interrupt time? How can you communicate this to others and begin to manage the flow of your workday rather than it feeling out of control and overwhelming? Consider it a gift to yourself, one that will help you move towards greater productivity and ease.

By Athena Williams-Atwood, President of Work With Ease


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