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Shocking Stats About Workplace Interruptions

by Ryan Anderson

on 09 July, 2015

Here on Filevine, you’ve learned how to manage your time properly, shut off distractions, break the cycles of blame, what to really give your clients, how to run meetings and more. With this wealth of knowledge, you sit down at your desk to begin your productive workday. Your day is scheduled, your time is being tracked; you take a deep breath and dive into your work.

“Uh, Greg, could I talk to you for a minute? I need some help.” A co-worker pops his head inside your office. You have a handle on your day, so why not take a few minutes to help him?

Half an hour later, you’re back to work. You didn’t want to waste that much time, but you’re ready to focus and –

“Hey Greg, I need you for a second.”

“Greg, do you have five minutes?”

“Greg, can you jump on this call really quick?”

“I know you’re busy, Greg, and I’ll let you finish but could you -”

The problem is, you won’t ever get to finish. Those “five minutes” and “just a couple seconds” and the “really quick” interruptions add up fast. Corporate employees are interrupted at least twelve times an hour, with face-to-face interruptions accounting for one third more disruptions than cell phone calls and emails. Those interruptions, on average, happen every 12 minutes and 40 seconds, and are usually 10-15 minutes. Factor in that it takes between 15-26 minutes to regain your focus and sense of workflow, and how much time do you end up actually working? Not much. Interruptions in the workplace are so problematic and time-consuming, that there is a whole field dedicated to studying it – interruption science, the “study of the effect of disruptions on job performance.” And we don’t just worry about disruptions in the office; interruptions to pilots or health care professionals can also be life-threatening.

The Shocking Statistics of What Happens When You’re Interrupted

  • Employees report 9% higher rates of exhaustion and a 4% increase in physical ailments, such as headaches or back pain.
  • Interruption leads to greater error rates. In a recent 300-person study by the Journal of Experimental Psychology, participants were asked to perform simple tasks. The participants who were interrupted during their work made significantly more errors than those who were not. The longer the interruption, the greater the chance of errors: 2.8 seconds of interruption doubled the rate of errors, and 4.4 seconds of interruption tripled the rate of errors.

One minute of interruption is enough to wipe out your short-term memory, effectively halting your work and mental progress.

  • 95% of employees experience a drop in general work quality.

How You Can Limit and Manage Interruptions

  • Manage your personal distractions .
  • Apply the skills you learned about saying no to interruptions. Gently but firmly tell potential interrupters that no, you do not have time to spare right now, but they can follow up with you at a different time (be specific as to when) or they can email you to set up a meeting.
  • Observe and record interruptions using Filevine. Includes noting who is interrupting you, when, details of the interruption, what the priority is, how you responded to the interruption, and how you followed up on it. Do this for at least a week in order to analyze the sources of your interruptions and determine how to manage them by using our suggestions.
  • Be mindful of both your time and your co-worker’s time by creating a “Talk To List” in Filevine. Instead of interrupting your own work and your co-worker’s, write down their name, contact information if necessary, what you need to talk to them about, the priority the conversation should take, and mark off when you’ve set a meeting with them. When reasonable, allow for several issues to build up for each person in order to save time.
  • When you are interrupted, ask the interruptor to wait a moment. Write down your last thoughts or bookmark your place before dealing with the disruption. The visual cue can cut the time needed to reinvest in a task by 80%, says productivity guru Laura Stack.
  • Use visuals to discourage interruptions; close your office door, use “do-not-disturb” signs, etc. Make sure these visual cues are appropriate for your workplace and communicate with your co-workers what they mean.
  • Finally, transfer whatever communication you can into Filevine instead of using face-to-face communication. This allows you and your team to deal with the message when it’s convenient for you, instead of when it will interrupt you.

Many professions take considerable care not to be interrupted while doing priority work.

 


A nurse works with a bright yellow sash and stays in the “red zone” to indicate that she is not to be disturbed.

The airline industry is required to follow the “sterile-cockpit rule”, which prohibits disrupting pilots during critical flight times. This pilot will shut and lock the cockpit to ensure he is not disturbed.

  • Communicate, communicate, communicate. Talk to management about your interruption concerns and make sure they know about your plan to handle disruption. Ask for support  from management and co-workers in encouraging a company culture that limits interruptions.
  • Setup “unavailable time” and “available time.” During “unavailable” time, you are not to be disturbed. During “available” time, your door is open for micro-meetings no longer than ten minutes. This strategy comes from acclaimed Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, who can average over 70 micro-meetings a week. She trained those who wanted to meet with her to value her time; no interruptions that wasted her time, if you want to speak with Mayer, schedule ahead and make it quick.
  • To discourage interruptions in teams, learn from the best; medical professionals. Medical staff are trained in triage, which is the process of determining priority of patient’s treatments based on the severity of their condition. This encourages staff not to interrupt only if it is an emergency. Train your own teams in triage; only interrupt each other if the issue is top priority. Otherwise, employees should send meeting requests.
  • Set aside one or two offices as “Interruption-Free Zones”, where employees can go to work without being disrupted. Supervisor Erin Naterman of Schaefer Advertising says her company has three “privacy rooms.” When her employees go in, “we know they don’t want to be interrupted. Barring emergencies, we wait for them to come out.”
  • Hold an “Interruption-Free Monday,” where office staff is prohibited from speaking to other office staff for a solid hour or two. It seems over the top but your team will come to love this valuable time.