Interruptions

I hate interruptions. Hate is a strong word, but I also have strong feelings about how interruptions negatively affect our lives. Perhaps it’s because I can’t have full control over how I get interrupted. It’s not like Priorities. Although there is always an open door for outside effects, we are responsible for setting our priorities straight. Interruptions, on the other hand, are external by definition. Yet, I do believe there are ways to minimize its adverse effects.

Anyone can tell you how they hate interruptions and how getting interrupted kills their productivity. I sympathize with them. However, they are also short on two crucial aspects:

  1. Interruptions are costlier than you think, especially if you need to focus.

  2. Humans need to focus on several occasions that are not limited to work.

Artist: Gülfemin Buğu Tekcan — cosmodotart

First things first: Why do I think interruptions are costlier than one might think? Let’s say you are working on something — it could be a new feature on a software project, your tax declaration, a presentation, or your dinner preparation. As long as it’s not a repetitive task that you’re doing on autopilot, you need to focus. Your brain is hard at work, commanding your hands to do wonders and planning the next steps. You’re on a roll. You’re doing excellent and—interrupted by your colleague asking if you’ve sent the email you’ve said you would. Oh, wait, he found it. He thanks you for the email you sent an hour ago. What a nice guy. Eh, where were you? Oh, yes, you were doing that thing… That… What?

See where I’m going with this? You were interrupted by a minute or two, but you lost much more than that. You lost track of where were you left off. You lost those immediate next steps your brain prepared for you. You lost the intensity of the moment — and there goes your focus. Now you need to spend time only to get back to where you were. How much time, to be exact? It’s 23 minutes on average, according to Gloria Mark from the University of California, Irvine.1

What’s worse is that there are also planned interruptions. When you are interrupted spontaneously, you only lose time in the future.2 When you are interrupted in a planned fashion, and yes, I’m talking about meetings, then you also lose time before that meeting. Paul Graham puts this beautifully in his 2009 essay on why makers dislike meetings3:

When you're operating on the maker's schedule, meetings are a disaster. A single meeting can blow a whole afternoon, by breaking it into two pieces each too small to do anything hard in. Plus you have to remember to go to the meeting.


Onto the second point: Why do I think humans need to focus outside of work? Because not focusing is killing the quality of our lives, that’s why — simple as that. When we read a fictional book or watch a movie, we place ourselves inside that imaginary world. When we have a conversation with a friend, the joy is doubled if we are both into the topic. When we play games, our mind starts thinking strategically and needs cognitive resources. The list goes on… You need to focus on what you’re doing to achieve quality in your life. And when you’re interrupted, it’s too easy to snap out of that fictional world or that intense topic you’ve been discussing with your friend. It’s also not possible to get back to it every time.

Being aware of the fact that interruptions hurt us is the first step towards minimizing them. I argue that considering the two points I elaborated above is the next big step. That big step was the trigger for me to search for an uninterrupted life. I haven’t achieved it yet. Although I’m not sure if such a thing is possible, even chasing that life provides positive outcomes. But that’s for another post.

What do you think about interruptions? Have you ever gained benefits by getting interrupted spontaneously? How much do you get hurt by planned interruptions? Let me know in the comments.

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1

Worker, Interrupted: The Cost of Task Switching — an interview with Gloria Mark

2

You may save some time if the interruption’s context is similar to what you’ve been focusing on. However, there may be trade-offs, such as having more stress. You can read more about the study here: The Cost of Interrupted Work: More Speed and Stress by Gloria Mark from the University of California, Irvine and Daniela Gudith & Ulrich Klocke from the Humboldt University, Berlin.