When I’m busy working, please don’t interrupt me unless what you have to share is so urgent and important that it’s worth erasing all the work I’ve done in the past hour.
Did you know that a task that’s interrupted takes 50% longer and has 50% more mistatkes than an uninterrupted one?
It takes a while for our brain to get into a focused state where we’re able to concentrate fully on a task without feeling distracted. Once we’re in that state, we can enjoy a very productive flow, as long as we don’t get interrupted.
A focused mind is still sensitive to disruption from external input. When you interrupt someone, on average it takes them 23 minutes to get back to the original task, plus up to 30 minutes to return to the flow state so they can be fully productive again. Almost half of the time you interrupt someone, you’ll actually knock them off task completely, such that they won’t return to the original task right away when the interruption ends. You may think you’re only putting them on pause for a minute or two, but the actual break from the task that results from your interruptions may be significantly longer.
Frequently task switching has also been measured to significantly increase stress levels vs. single handling. So interrupting others not only hurts their productivity, but it may also damage their health.
Interruptions are expensive too. One estimate puts the cost of workplace interruptions at $588 billion per year in lost productivity for the US economy. Interruptions mean that some books are never finished, some businesses are never launched, and some idease are doomed to die on the vine.
The next time you think about interrupting someone who’s productively working on a task that’s important to them, consider that your seemingly innocent question or comment may create serious consequences for them, including adding more work to their plate, increasing their stress, causing mistakes, creating delays, and potentially killing the task completely.
Highly productive people know the importance of working in uninterrupted blocks of time with good focus and concentration. Consequently, they take steps to guard against interruption. For example:
- by wearing headphones to discourage trivial conversation (even if no audio is playing)
- by closing their office doors
- by cautioning others not to interrupt them unless absolutely necessary
- by letting people known when it’s okay vs. not okay to chat with them
- by working in different locations
- by turning off phones and notification services
- by working different hours.
Being social is fine. But if someone is actively working, let them keep working. You can talk to them when they’re done.
If you have issues with other people interrupting you more than you’d like, ask them to use the following rule of thumb (or any other guideline that satisfies you):