How to put a stop to interruptions before they ruin your work flow

Don’t you love interruptions? I often think that my day would be so much better if I wore some sort of magical hat so that people would know exactly when I was in the middle of an epiphany so that they could thwart any attempt to do good work.

Here’s the thing about interruptions: they’re deadly.

You might think it’s a pretty casual and small occurrence to have someone message you, call you, email you, or stop by your desk when you’re in the middle of a workday. It’s not!

Statistically, every single interruption we face in a day means roughly 15 minutes of lost productivity time. You might think that sounds extreme, but here’s where you get that number.

Have you ever been working on something, lost that work to distraction, and had a hard time recapturing it? We all do. Sometimes it’s extreme and that idea is lost forever.

Samuel Coleridge once awoke from an opium-induced dream and began writing Kubla Khan when there was a knock at his door. He attended to his guest, a friend who stayed and chatted for around an hour, and when he returned to his study he had no idea how the rest of the epic poem should go, nor even what the existing poem had been about.

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Now in addition to me suggesting that maybe you shouldn’t use opium as part of your daily work routine, there’s another lesson here.

Even the best and brightest can fall victim to idea loss from an interruption. You might think that it’s not a big deal because you’ve always been able to remember the idea…eventually. And you probably will. Most of us won’t lose our entire idea in the same way that Coleridge did. But it takes time to get back up to speed.

Imagine that you’re driving a car. You’re driving 70km/h when someone pulls out in front of you. Sure, you get to keep driving, but you have to slow down. And it’s likely a little while before you’re back up to your pre-interruption speed.

Now that slight delay could result in hitting red lights, or traffic pileups that you may have avoided without that small delay.

Now imagine that this happens over and over again. Are you picturing it? Does it look like your office?

Here’s the other thing about interruptions: it’s your fault.


Now obviously you’re not calling yourself and sending yourself emails and tapping yourself on the shoulder and stopping yourself mid-assignment. Or maybe you are, in which case these are the least of your problems. So how is it your fault?

Simple. You’ve set up the environment that you work in. Your email pops up and tells you that you’ve got an email on a schedule that YOU’VE decided.

Your phone rings or vibrates when you get a text or call based on criteria that YOU’VE decided. But what about people tapping you on the shoulder? Surely you can’t be blamed for that?

Sure you can. Have you told people not to interrupt you? Have you given them specific criteria upon which they can base a decision to interrupt your work?

Do you tap on other people’s shoulders whenever you feel like it, regardless of the work they appear to be doing? You are responsible for your own work environment.

If you don’t want people to interrupt you when you’re completing certain tasks, make that clear to them. Have some sort of indicator, like headphones, that shows people that now is not a good time.

Every computer or phone on the planet has notification settings. You can choose specific times that you want to receive notifications or if you want to receive them at all. I’ve decided that instead of notifications, I’ll set reminders for myself to complete certain tasks like check my email.

But what about those incredibly important, urgent, ASAP emails that we get…every second of our lives. Well if everything is high priority, nothing is high priority.

Let your peers and any managers know what you’re doing so that they know not to use email like an instant messaging service. What we’ve lost over the years is an idea of a scale of importance.

People now expect emails, phone calls, text messages, DM’s and taps on the shoulder to all be returned instantaneously. Change that.

Part of my email signature tells clients when email will be checked and what they should do if they require urgent assistance. You’ll do better work, and your clients will thank you, for this minor “inconvenience”.

Some people will tell you that they thrive with multi-tasking, that they’re incredibly productive in the face of disruption and interruption, and that they do their best work when they’ve got a million things coming at them.

What most of them are really saying is, “I’ve never worked in an environment where my time and attention was respected and I’ve learned to be moderately productive in the face of all this noise.”

Provide those same people with the opportunity to do uninterrupted work and to have their time respected and they’ll see what real productivity looks like.

This concept can be used across any organizational makeup. If you’re at the top of the food chain, it will be very easy to institute these changes since you get to do whatever you want.

For those in middle management positions, your teams will thrive (eventually) under this method. And if you’re the place that all the shit that rolls downhill settles, your managers will appreciate the extra production you’ll achieve and it will help you move your way up.

Interruption and disruption are productivity killers. So don’t set yourself up for failure. Instead, take control of your time and your space and enjoy the results.

Please share with me how you avoid interruptions in the comments.

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About Mike Tanner

Mike Tanner is a stay-at-home father of two, creative agency founder at OneRedCat, and coach & consultant with Really Little Wins. He’s a regular contributor to Hustle & Grind, Yummy Mummy Club and CBC, is a board game enthusiast, and his first non-fiction book, Really Little Wins, will be available soon.

Also, make sure to check out Mike’s weekly podcast, Riding In Cars with Cats, where he talks all things entrepreneurship.


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