Being productive in a culture of interruptions

Gunjan Singh
May 29, 2017 · 6 min read

Productivity in today’s world

As a species, we were never much concerned about our productivity till the beginning of 20th century. A quick peek at the use of the word shows how it came into vogue with the industrial revolution and it hasn’t stopped ever since.

Google trends for ‘productivity’

A decade back, being more productive and efficient brought to my mind images of hardworking workers on assembly lines, six sigma slogans and daily production charts. Today, as we are constantly busy with multitasking, we also surround ourselves with various technological distractions which stop us from doing those tasks efficiently.

So what’s the problem?

Full inbox, social media distractions, mobile phones and other gadgets, instant notifications about the weather, latest news and an overwhelming amount of tools one needs to use to get their work done are just examples of things that are supposed to increase our productivity and make our life easier, but that very often have the opposite effect. The picture below shows an example how overwhelmed are we on our workplace in general.

The balancing of the workload is known as cognitive load management. Institute of the Future defines cognitive load management as the ability to discriminate and filter information for importance, and to understand how to maximize cognitive functioning using a variety of tools and techniques. One of the major aspects of cognitive load management is dealing with culture of interruptions.

According to Forbes, 71% of people report frequent interruptions when they’re working. On average we are interrupted every 3 minutes and it can cost you 6 hours a day! A world rich in information streaming in multiple formats and from multiple devices frequently divides our attention and ruins our productivity. The race to deliver results and be productive leads us to a mindless and energy sucking routine around the clock. The interference of buzzes and pings from our online devices add to the mayhem.

To manage one’s cognitive load and steer easily around interruptions, one can categorize the suggested solutions under two main approaches.

One approach is to manage your own time, energy and attention. You need to inculcate habits, which help you plough through the day and hence increase your productivity. There are many books written that are aimed to help increase your productivity: from getting things done, how to thrive in the world of too much, and to laid down rules for focussed success in distracted world. The advice of 8 hours of sleep, de-cluttering your desk and having an afternoon siesta float around the cyberspace.

Chris Bailey from A Life of Productivity and The Productivity project personally experimented and researched different productivity tactics, techniques and technologies over a decade. According to him, the first thing to focus on is the intention of being productive and then figuring out ways to do it.

Image credits:

You can find out what are time slots when one is most energetic and can give undivided attention to the task at hand. One needs to find what Chris Bailey refers to as the ‘Biological prime time’. If you want to know what is yours, here is a helpful tutorial to build your own. After discovering your peak energetic time, assign the most attention seeking tasks in that time slot, and put your phone in airplane mode and go in your hyperfocus zone.

Another approach relies on technology. There is plenty of software available to help individuals stay productive in cognitively overwhelming environments.

To-do lists

A lot of times all we need is creating a to-do list and ticking it off as we go along the day. One can go old school and use a pen and paper or choose a smartphone app. Two of the better apps out there for to-do lists at the moment are Wunderlist and You can also try Teuxduex, if you are looking for a simple, no frills app.

Managing emails

Boomerang for Gmail is a plugin for your browser that helps you schedule your email for later. This helps in email management: you can write your important emails in full focus and schedule to send them out later. You can also set up reminders to help you follow up with those sent emails. The Respondable feature acts as an assistant that uses Artificial Intelligence to give you some numbers and data about your email, i.e. how many questions have you asked and what is the tone of the email. They claim they help you to write better, more actionable emails in real time.

Boomerang's Respondable with AI features. Image credits: Boomerang for Gmail

Time management

RescueTime is the app that monitors your working style, creating reports on how much time you spend on different applications, for example e-mail, throughout the week. Being able to visually quantify how alerts, messages, emails, and other sources contribute to cognitive overload helps professionals to better allocate their time throughout the day. To deal with constant interruptions through myriad notifications, this application can block certain computer programs or websites for limited periods of time.

There are also apps like Noisli, that help you create a conducive and focussing environment by creating the right ambient sounds. You can adjust and mix different sounds to make your own productivity or relaxation fix.

In the future, we will see a rise of more complex systems for load management. The ones that will be able to measure the cognitive load and react accordingly. For example, Tufts University are prototyping a brain computer interface to measure the levels of attention and emotional arousal evident in stockbrokers as they watch streams of financial data. It has an internal monitoring system: when the stockbrokers get overwhelmed by other tasks, the system recognizes this and simplifies the data presentation. We predict that the systems that can monitor our exposure to information, adjust our load accordingly, block interruptions and provide valuable load management techniques will become mainstream.

Before you go ahead and download all possible apps, you must assess what are you struggling with? If it is keeping focus and getting rid of distractions, then get a blocker app; if you struggle with prioritizing your tasks and getting them done, get a trello board, personal kanban or a to-do list.

After you have figured out what is the foremost thing you need to alleviate, find an app which suits you. Sometimes you may need to experiment to find a good set of apps which work together to answer all your productivity needs.

Cognitive load management is definitely one of the skills of the future. Dealing with culture of interruptions is just one part of it.

If you are interested to develop your own techniques for tackling cognitive overload, you can always contact 361degreesLAB for advice.

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Upskilling for the Future

Everything on skills that become increasingly important in the new reality of the workplace

Gunjan Singh

Written by

Product Management at International Baccalaureate, lifelong learner currently excited and curious about Speculative and Sustainable Futures.

Upskilling for the Future

Everything on skills that become increasingly important in the new reality of the workplace