The modern worker lives in what is almost a constant state of being interrupted. According to researchers at University of California, Irvine, workers are interrupted every 11 minutes--and only resume their interrupted tasks after 25 minutes. By this math, even our interruptions are interrupted, amounting to more than 2.5 hours per day lost to interruptions.

The consequences are significant. People who experience frequent interruptions report a 9 percent higher exhaustion rate. And according to a study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology Applied, when people were interrupted for just 2.8 seconds, they made twice the number of errors as those who were not interrupted.

Some have accepted the interrupted life as inevitable. Being a leader or manager demands availability; anything different will hurt the performance of our teams or alienate clients. Or so the thinking goes.

Fortunately, there are three practices that can cut the hours we lose to interruptions every day in half: 

1. Retreat to private workspaces.

Most vexing of the interruption culprits are face-to-face interactions, partially because they are the hardest to ignore. The trend toward open office layouts and the rise of collaborative working spaces has only made this truer. A 2013 UC Irvine study shows that those in open workspaces experience 29 percent more interruptions than those working in private cubicles or offices, and 70 percent of people in open workspaces complain about the noise.

Physically isolating yourself in a private workspace when doing cognitively demanding work can save you 18 minutes per day, according to that study, by eliminating more than 10 percent of the interruptions the average person experiences per day. While this may seem obvious, only a third of professionals apparently do it.

You can make it a habit without upsetting your coworkers by letting them know you're going. Tell them how long you'll be gone and give them a way to contact you if they really need you. Do it at consistent times so they can plan ahead.

2. Create a "Do Not Disturb" sign.

A few years ago, a computer scientist at the University of British Columbia developed a device--kind of like a traffic light--that indicates workers' availability to their coworkers. This light, later named "FlowLight," was mounted on users' cubical walls or outside users' offices. For 1-2 months, 450 workers in 12 countries gave the lights a shot.

What did they find? The FlowLight resulted in 46 percent fewer interruptions and, more than that, it had a broader effect on office culture, encouraging people to be more respectful of each other's time and more aware of when they could, and couldn't, interrupt a colleague. 85 percent of users were still using the light two months after the study ended.

The FlowLight works by automatically detecting your busyness based on your computer activity and then signaling your status to nearby coworkers, encouraging them to leave you alone when doing cognitively demanding work. You can also go with a low-tech approach too by repurposing a flip calendar with three different cards: available as green, busy but "interruptible when necessary" as yellow, and do not disturb as red.

Put your DIY FlowLight to work when either retreating to a private workspace isn't an option or you're more in the yellow than the red. Face-to-face interruptions make up 64 percent of all interruptions and cost you 1 hour and 40 minutes per day. Cutting that in half means 47 minutes saved per day.

3. Develop ready-to-resume plans.

Private workspaces and FlowLight-type solutions can help reduce interruptions. What should you do when you're still interrupted?

Research out of the University of Washington found--as you can guess by now--that after study participants were interrupted while reviewing résumés for a mock hiring decision, they remembered less about the résumés and made worse decisions than those who weren't interrupted.

However, when participants took 1-2 minutes to develop a plan for how they would resume the interrupted action before switching to the interruption, they showed almost no effect of being interrupted. A ready-to-resume plan should include three things: where to return to, planned but now delayed tasks, and any unresolved thoughts concerning the task that you haven't already documented.

Instead of accepting interruptions by habit, delay them. Telling your interrupter you need a minute or two gives you the time to create a cognitive bookmark so that you don't lose time later figuring out where to pick your work back up.

The numbers support the strategy. Switching tasks can cost you a little over a minute per interruption, at roughly 50 times per day. That means ready-to-resume plans can save you 28 minutes daily (assuming you spend about a minute developing them).

Rather than accepting frequent interruptions as a part of life, put these research-backed tactics into practice and save time, do better work, and have more energy.

Published on: Jan 30, 2019
The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of