4 Strategies to Reduce Interruptions and Distractions at Work

Patrick Ewers
Oct 18, 2018 · 7 min read
Photo by StartupStockPhotos.

23 minutes and 15 seconds.

It takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to recover from an interruption at work and reach full productivity again.

And get this: According to recent studies, interruptions happen about 4 times every hour. That equates to one interruption every 15 minutes.

So for every 15 minutes of peak productivity, you spend 23 minutes and 15 seconds working suboptimally.

I don’t know about you, but that equation seems skewed in the wrong direction to me. I don’t have time for that much lost productivity, and I bet you don’t either.


The (Proven) Secret to Consistently High-Quality Work

Despite measuring metrics such as experience, compensation, and time spent on an individual project, the single most influential factor was this: The most effective, productive, and high-quality programmers are those who eliminate distractions.

Granted: We aren’t all programmers. But I think it’s safe to say these results are applicable to just about any form of work or activity that requires intense concentration and creativity.


Assessing the Damage: Calculating the Cost of Office Distractions

Over the next three days, I challenge you to create a log of all the interruptions (and interrupters) you encounter on a daily basis. And keep in mind: One of your chief interrupters may be yourself.

After all: How often do you stop in the middle of a project to check your email, respond to texts, or scroll through Facebook?

Willing to give this a try? Here’s a breakdown of the information you’re going to want to track:

  • Date: What day did the interruption occur?
  • Interrupter: Who was the cause of this interruption?
  • Description of the Interruption: What were you working on when you were interrupted, and what exactly was the interruption?
  • Time Lost: How much time did you spend in an interrupted state? (Keep in mind: This isn’t including the average of 23 minutes it takes to return to peak productivity after the distraction.)
  • Validity: Was the interruption valid? (After all: Not all interruptions can be avoided, and some of them are necessary. But many times, they’re not.)
  • Urgency: Even if the reason for the interruption was valid, was it urgent? If it wasn’t urgent, could it have waited until after the project you were working on?

4 Ways to Reduce Distractions and Interruptions at Work

#1: Want the #1 Source of Work Interruptions? Take a Look in the Mirror

  • Scrolling through Facebook,
  • Checking our inbox,
  • Skimming Slack,
  • Calling someone over to the office as they walk by, or
  • Getting up for coffee every 15 minutes.

If you notice any of these are recurring issues for you, I’d recommend looking into these solutions for procrastination. Here’s a few recommendations to help eliminate personal interruptions at work:

  1. Switch off distractions: If you’re often distracted by email pings, Slack messages, texts, or social media updates, turn off notifications. The fact of the matter is, most of us don’t need real-time updates of everything going on in our lives. The best thing to do is silence your phone, disconnect your computer from Wi-Fi, and pick up a pair of noise-cancelling headphones; at least when you’re in the middle of an intensive, interruption-prone project.
  2. Focus on the objective: The times we’re most easily interrupted are often when we’re working on a project we’re not especially excited about. And while there certainly will be projects that don’t thrill you, you can often find motivation to complete them by shifting your focus to the end goal or objective that the task will help you complete.
  3. Forget about multitasking: Some people like to brag about their ability to effectively multitask, but the truth is … There’s no such thing as multitasking. All you’re really doing is moving rapidly from one project to another, constantly interrupting yourself and negatively impacting the final product for both projects.

For any of us, overcoming distractions and interruptions starts with overcoming our own bad habits. Keep in mind:

Procrastination and being distraction-prone is a habit, and it will take time and effort to overcome.

#2: Eliminate Office Distractions by Turning Liabilities into Assets

The problem is, a poorly-trained assistant can sometimes be your #1 source of distractions. Between Slack messages, emails, and knocks on the door, your assistant may be involving you in administration overhead that you simply don’t need to be involved in.

The good news is, your assistant can also be your greatest productivity asset. With the right rules in place, you can train them to be your gatekeeper and keep you as distraction-free as possible. Here are a few recommendations:

  1. Use Whitespace Time to block off specific time each week devoted to uninterrupted work, and let him know that nothing — other than an urgent crisis — should distract you during that time.
  2. Train her on the art of Inbox Shadowing and empower her to manage your emails as if she’s you — drafting, sorting, and prioritizing emails based on the context, permissions, and training she’s received.
  3. Create a set of clear productivity rules about when you can and can’t be interrupted. Outline what types of situations warrant an interruption, and what times of the day are acceptable for interruptions.

Remember: Leveraged correctly, your assistant can be your most powerful partner on your journey to peak productivity. But without a system of clear checks and balances, they can also be one of the greatest hindrances.

#3: Avoiding Distraction Often Means Having Those Hard Conversations

This is especially true for founders with an “open door” policy. While that policy is great for company culture, it can also be detrimental to productivity. Here are a few suggestions to cut down on colleague-driven interruptions:

  • Call a team-wide meeting and let everyone know you’re trying to cut down on interruptions. This way you’re not calling anyone out specifically. You can even turn this into a company-wide initiative by asking for their suggestions on reducing distractions and interruptions.
  • Create clear guidelines on when you are and are not available. For example: Pick up a pair of white over-the-ear noise-canceling headphones, and let everyone know you aren’t to be interrupted when you have them on. Or have your kids create a “do not disturb” sign you can hang on your door to let people know when you’re not available.
  • Consider having “office hours” alongside an open-door policy. Let people know you do want them to be able to share their thoughts, but that they can’t come and go whenever they’d like. For example: You could say your door is open from 2:00–4:00pm every day. During this time, you’d be largely focused on reactive tasks — such as clearing your inbox — so distractions aren’t going to be as detrimental.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter exactly what you do, so long as you find an approach that works for you. The key is to set expectations and then communicate your expectations to your team members.

And keep in mind: This may take some getting used to at first; especially if you had a full-access, open-door policy beforehand. So if someone comes in to distract you during your Whitespace Time, don’t be afraid to remind them of your office hours and send them away.

#4: If All Else Fails: Eliminate Interruptions by Relocating

Maybe you yourself feel especially distractible, or your team’s in the middle of a project and is needing your input more than you feel is necessary. When this happens, sometimes the best thing you can do is get yourself a change of scenery.

When you’re in the middle of an important project, don’t be afraid to switch things up. Remember, this doesn’t necessarily mean you have to leave the building. For example, you could…

  • Shut the blinds and turn the lights off in your office,
  • Book a conference room for yourself, or simply
  • Find a quiet corner of the building to yourself.

If none of these options prove effective, you may have to get a little more creative, or actually leave the building. For example, you might…

  • Head to a local coffee shop,
  • Work out of hotel lobby, or
  • Choose to work from your home office.

This strategy is especially effective when combined with the three tips above. While working away from the office, let both your team and assistant know you’ll be unreachable for the next 2–3 hours. You can then silence your phone and (if possible) disconnect your Wi-Fi for the duration of the project.

You’ll likely find this change in environment, coupled with a supportive and understanding team, will give you all the focus you need to reduce interruptions and power through that project.


Remember: A Distracted Leader is a Hindered Leader

But if you can eliminate many of the non-essential distractions — such as meeting requests, Slack messages, and habitual inbox maintenance — you’ll be better equipped to handle those essential work interruptions as they arise.

And as a result, you’ll be that much close to reaching your fullest potential as a leader and contributing to your startup at the highest level possible.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Patrick Ewers

Written by

Executive coach & founder of Mindmaven, a company that teaches entrepreneurs and leaders how to generate breakthrough opportunities from their network.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

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