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How Expensive are Interruptions?

It's become one of my new years resolutions - reduce interruptions.  As if there weren't enough interruptions in a day; then came blog subscription notifications, Twitter, Facebook, an open plan office...

Adam D 28 January 2011

It's become one of my new years resolutions - reduce interruptions. As if there weren't enough interruptions in a day; then came blog subscription notifications, Twitter, Facebook, an open plan office... etc, etc. If we're not talking to someone, we're consuming media of some sort - all the time!  Don't get me wrong, I love it - the digital age is incredible, but sometimes it drive me nuts. It scatters my thoughts.

I love interacting - it's how I learn, grow (& sell!). I just can't help but notice how much more effective & productive I am when I'm not interacting! It needs to be very, very carefully managed. In fact, I think the ability to manage interruptions can seriously affect a career or a business.

If I'm in a "interrupted state" it's really hard to focus on writing an important email, or proposal - things end up being done superficially, and without enough consideration. This also extends to human interaction. If you're sitting with someone, having a conversation, or a quiet moment, and their phone is buzzing and burping constantly, distracting them from you - your interaction with them is also compromised. How often do you get a message when spending time with your kids, and you whip out the phone to take a look? People need to be present. Put down the iPhone and Blackberry and enjoy the personal company of the human(s) you're sitting with right now (after you read this ;-) ).

There are a bunch of other things to consider about having quiet time. I'm compelled whenever I read something about these topics. Here are some interesting thoughts to consider from others:

"If anything, it is having more choices that is driving more and more consumption. It's our ability to fill those smaller time slots (like any idle moment of waiting in your life) with some form of media/entertainment (be it a quick glance of a Twitter feed or checking the sport scores on your mobile device)".

- Mitch Joel.

This is a brilliant article -
"A growing body of scientific evidence suggests that the net, with its constant distractions and interruptions, is turning us into scattered and superficial thinkers".

- Nicholas Carr.

Here are some things I like to do to help:

Turn off notifications

When I get a new tweet, instant message, email or blog post to read, I don't really need to know about it immediately. Turn off the notification settings on these apps, and watch your focus increase. The world isn't going to end if you don't respond immediately. People will come tap you on the shoulder if they need to.

Don't answer/respond to your phone

I've removed my office phone from the Sales ring group.  I can still answer the phone if I hear it ringing, and feel like answering it, but my desk phone doesn't ring all the time now.  When I get home from work, my mobile phone gets shelved at least for the "rush hour" - I have quality time to spend with the family. If too busy at work, I turn it onto silent.

Don't check your emails

If you really think about it, how many emails do you get that require an immediate response - anything that can't wait a few hours? And if something was urgent, wouldn't they just call you? Probably. Give it a try - don't click on the mail link for a few hours, you won't explode. I like to deal with emails first thing in the morning, in the middle of the day, mid afternoon, then end of day. 3-4 times per day is often enough.

Work remotely (not from home)

I often stop at a cafe I pass on the way to work - it's usually quiet, they have big tables, good coffee, and free wifi. I can work there for as long as I want, without interruption.  I don't work from home for various reasons. I have 3 energetic kids, a talkative wife (bless her), and am easily distracted by the never ending list of stuff to do around the house.

Disconnect from the internet

The web is the cause of most of the interruptions in our lives - turn the wifi off on the laptop now and again - works for me.

Get up early

This is likely the most effective of all the techniques I use. Not only are early mornings naturally void of most distractions, but I also find myself most aware, clear-minded and thoughtful at this time of the day. I honestly think of my best ideas first thing in the morning - however rare they may be!


Oh man, I LOVE "Things" on my Mac. There are heaps of ways to keep a list - write it down, use notepad, outlook tasks, to-do pads - whatever. Just write stuff down. If you think of something to do when you're in the middle of something else, add it to the list. Don't distract yourself and go "do it quickly" - add it to your list quickly, clear your mind of it, then continue to complete the task at hand, and come back to the list later.

Don't be shy to say you're too busy

I used to be worried about what people would think if I said "sorry I'm a bit busy, can you come back later". Or "just let me finish what I'm doing, and I'll pop over". Guess what? They don't mind!


Don't take it form me. Covey and Blanchard had theories on how to prioritise tasks - I have the Covey quadrant pasted on the wall in front of my desk.
Quadrant 1 are highest priority, then 2, and so on.. Here is a run down: blanchardquadrant/

Carve out interruption time

While at work, I find that the interruptions can build up quickly. I often ignore them for a while, especially if in the middle of something that I want to finish. When I'm done, I might spend 10 minutes reading emails, responding to Tweets, etc. I do this every few hours.

In summary...

Sometimes I think of it as a mini-holiday. When you go away on leave, everything continues one way or another, without you. There is heaps to do when you get back, but everything is generally OK. You come back refreshed, energised, and ready to be productive again. Removing yourself from interruptions is similar, on a smaller scale. Remove yourself, come back with a fresh mind, a clear list of things to do, and get cracking again.

Of course, these are just ideas, and in reality, we must be approachable, flexible and effective communicators. I find that if I remind myself of these guidelines every now and again, and carve out the important quiet time, I'm more effective, less agitated, actually sell more business, and offer better leadership than when constantly distracted. Interruptions are very, very expensive for our businesses, careers, and more importantly, our personal lives.

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