The famous Austrian composer Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) had a hut built in the garden of his own house where he could concentrate and compose. The hut protected him from possible interruptions (in fact, he asked not to be disturbed), and predisposed him to focus on his professional development for the creation of new works. Most of his symphonies were composed in this environment of creative intimacy. The German philosopher Martin Heidegger also wrote much of Being and Time and the rest of his work in an austere cottage in the Black Forest away from the madding crowd, a space that became an indispensable mediator for the elaboration of his philosophical thought. Like him, Heraclitus, Lao-Tse, Wittgenstein… are also thinkers with a hut tradition in their biography.
Many people need creative intimacy, moments of complete concentration to advance the quality of the performance of their objectives: programmers, scientists, managers. To a greater or lesser extent, most jobs require moments of concentration, whether to finalise a report, to think out a plan, to elaborate, to correct, to write. However, there’s one great enemy that Mahler and Heiddegger used to protect themselves from: interruptions at work.
What will I read about in this article?
Intrusions, breaks, distractions… What kind of interruptions do we face at work?
Frequent interruptions and transitions from one task to another are a reality in contemporary organisations. They’re part of organisational life, whether we like it or not. According to the study “Interruptions and task transitions: understanding their characteristics, processes and consequences” by S. Leroy, A. Schmidt and N. Madiar, IT workers are interrupted every 3 to 11 minutes.
These interruptions, which on the one hand may have a positive side —as a new need is addressed and needs to be considered—, nevertheless lead to a deterioration in the quality of the core work, as they result in less attention and a lack of well-being for the interrupted person. Organisations should reflect on and understand the positive and negative implications of interruptions.
“Interruptions can lead to a deterioration in the quality of the core work, as they lead to less attention and a lack of well-being in the interrupted person”.
After examining 400 papers over the last 15 years, Leroy and his colleagues present in their study five types of interruptions that we should be aware of, which we review below. These types of interruptions are:
We‘ve all experienced a time when we were concentrating on a task and someone interrupts us, and we thought to ourselves, “not now please”. According to Leroy and his colleagues, these types of interruptions are intrusions, which can be defined as the interruptions you experience when you’re forced to leave a task you have committed to. They’re interruptions imposed by another.
The most powerful intrusions are face-to-face. An illustrative example would be a boss who interrupts a colleague who’s concentrating on writing a report in order to go to a meeting for which he’s not been summoned. A second example would be a friend who, while we’re concentrated on studying in the library, asks us to go for a coffee. Both requests, sometimes declinable, sometimes not, separate us from the task to which we committed ourselves.
However, it is not only face-to-face intrusions that are intense and difficult to decline, but also virtual intrusions. A clear example is email, as reading it “invites” us to stop what we’re doing to perform a new task. Some experts claim that 1 in 3 emails requires immediate action.
Whether face-to-face or virtual, intrusions threaten a resource we all value highly: time. And we relate to such an intrusion, or to the person who has provoked the intrusion, as a discomfort, since it reduces our time to complete the initial task, increasing the feeling of time hunger, and with it an extra sense of pressure, fatigue, and stress.
“Intrusions threaten a resource we all value highly – time.
In general, empirical evidence reveals that intrusions reduce productivity, the quality of the main task, as well as increase the error rate in the tasks performed. At the same time, not all intrusions have the same weight, it’s essential to think about how far away the completion of the initial task is, the mental or physical state in which the interrupted person is, as well as the frequency of previous intrusions.
Interruptions at work: distractions.
A second type of interruption is distraction. In this case we understand distractions as diverted attention (intentional or unintentional, conscious or not) that takes us away from the main task. Sometimes it is caused by external stimuli (voices or noises), sometimes by internal stimuli (thoughts and emotions).
To be more specific, Leroy and his colleagues distinguish two types of distractions: temptations and interferences. Temptations are defined as personal openness to other, non-mainstream attentions. An example might be looking at WhatsApp or the need to have a new coffee when we’ve just had one. In short, temptations are distractions that emerge as appetising.
Interference, on the other hand, may be those internal or external stimuli (noise or thought) that are not necessarily desirable, but which take us away from the initial task, representing, in the authors’ words, a failure in our attentional control system.
Distractions, in general, are also related to increased stress, reduced job satisfaction, and a decrease in our perceived productivity and psychological well-being. On the road, many accidents are caused by distractions, whether due to being alerted by a text message on a mobile phone, or looking out of lane. In the organisational world, distractions also seem to have negative implications.
A third type of interruptions are pauses. Sometimes they’re voluntary, sometimes involuntary, sometimes structured (lunch breaks), sometimes unstructured. Some are very short (micro-breaks) and some are long (summer holidays). In any case, breaks are an opportunity to regain energy and maintain the resources needed to keep going.
The starting point is always that energy is limited and the pause facilitates the recovery of that energy. In general, this form of interruption, unlike intrusions and distractions, is positively related to most indicators: reduced exhaustion, increased satisfaction and increased vitality.
This fourth type can be found when the impetus for the interruption arises from the task itself. For example, we’re mowing the lawn, and the machine itself stops working, or in the office, the server or internet stops. It could also be the case that a member of the team stops being part of the team, interrupting in some way the course of the task at hand.
In this sense, work interruptions as surprises have both negative and positive implications, and much depends on the intensity and duration of the surprise, personal characteristics or timing of the task among many other factors.
Generally, interruptions as surprises invite self-reflection and a small or large critical impulse about what we were doing. It allows us to reconsider what we’re doing, to give ourselves the pause we were not giving ourselves, and to reconsider some aspect of the task. It can generate stress, tension, fatigue, depending on the moment of delivery of the task, but in generating the interruption as a surprise it generates improvisation and opportunity for reconsideration.
Interruptions as surprises invite self-reflection and a small or large critical impulse about what we were doing.
Finally, the authors propose a fifth form of interruption: multitasking. In the previous definitions it’s been assumed that we work sequentially, first we do one thing, then another. According to the authors, multiple work demands lead to multitasking behaviour where we are always doing more than one task at a time.
A clear example is going to a work meeting and answering emails from another project, or being in class, doing work for another subject, while more or less listening to the teacher in the background. It could also be the case of watching a TV series at home, and replying to friends. We multitask constantly, causing all tasks to interrupt each other ultimately.
However, this behaviour creates significant challenges. Among the implications of multitasking are stress, errors and confusion. Among students in the classroom who multitask, it’s been found that they have less memory, learn less, and perform less well. The positive side of multitasking is also very recognizable: when a person is able to carry out multitasking without stress, it generates productivity and greater efficiency in management time.
How organisations and employees can manage disruptions at work
Faced with this new reality, as the authors indicated, there’s no magic formula to avoid the B-side of interruptions and only take advantage of the A-side, but perhaps there’s some guidance.
- Promote monthly, weekly or daily non-disruption slots in their teams, if the position requires it. Programmers obviously need to meet, to interact, but, at the same time, they require pure programming moments. Organisations should facilitate these moments of creative intimacy, which are extensible to many professions.
- Encourage reading emails in blocks. Some initiatives encourage reading emails three times a day (at 9am, 12pm, and 5pm). The issue of urgency always comes into the debate, but perhaps it is necessary to establish channels through which urgency can enter so as to avoid living and working as if urgency can constantly enter through any email.
- Conduct a study on the positive and negative implications of workplace intrusions. When do they happen and how often? In which departments? Who generates them? What do they solve? What do they hinder?
- Reflect on the level of intrusion on others and on oneself. Can my question be on hold? How does the intrusion of others affect me? Can I do anything to avoid it?
- Rethink a strategy for possible sources of distraction – do I have my phone in sight, is it necessary, do I have a strategy to avoid external distractions?
- Take advantage of the beneficial pauses, and avoid falling into those that prevent us from following the flow of a good work. Often when we write, programme or compose, in short, when we are faced with a blank piece of paper, there’s a certain tendency to look for escape routes to avoid the demands of the task. However, in these moments, it seems that the most sensible thing to do is the senseless thing, to continue with the task to which we committed ourselves.
If you need to dig deeper into these issues, this article discusses how to get the most out of your hours. The point is that there are different forms of interruptions at work and they all have the potential to harm our productivity. By understanding the different types of interruptions we face and applying some best practices, we can learn how to manage them more effectively and even reap the benefits.
- Leroy, S., Schmidt, A. M., & Madjar, N. (2020). Interruptions and task transitions: Understanding their characteristics, processes, and consequences. Academy of Management Annals, 14(2), 661-694.
- Hembrooke, H., & Gay, G. (2003). The laptop and the lecture: The effects of multitasking in learning environments. Journal of computing in higher education, 15, 46-64.
- Junco, R. (2012). In-class multitasking and academic performance. Computers in Human Behavior, 28(6), 2236-2243.
- Sana, F., Weston, T., & Cepeda, N. J. (2013). Laptop multitasking hinders classroom learning for both users and nearby peers. Computers & Education, 62, 24-31.