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Interruptions are a corporate cancer. Tricks on how to navigate interruptions at work.

Photo by Lloyd Dirks on Unsplash

Let’s face it: in any given work day, interruptions are part of it and whoever tells you you can eliminate it completely, is a liar! But the way they are managed, makes all the difference.

Statistics show that interruptions are a problem for a company’s productivity. In fact, a culture that embraces the occasional “do you have a minute” as a normal behavior, is definitely challenging the ability to keep high productivity rates. And when that happens, being interrupted becomes acceptable: unnecessary phone calls, emails that flood your inbox and do not add value (but you are Cc’ed to be informed), messages, pop up notifications and so many other now “normal interruptions” often embraced as “another working day”.

Learning from the best

Visiting one of Yazaki factories as a transformation engineer learning the trade, I was always accompanied by a translator that would help us interact with our Senseis.

We were in the middle of the factory floor, and I was asked at one point if I wanted some water. When you are offered something in Japan, I learnt early in my career, it is polite to always accept as it means that the person offering may also want what is being questioned. So I accepted the water offering and to my surprise, I was told to hide to drink. That completely puzzled me. Why would I hide? I was told that it is disrespectful to staff working, for me to be drinking while they are not allowed to interrupt their work for another 35 minutes.

In manufacturing it is easier to absorb such comments as the production line will stop if someone stops attending their post or function. So, a comment about scheduled interruptions makes sense.

Quantifying interruptions

Reality is that in an office environment, someone stopping to attend their post of function can be easily camouflaged, specially in posts or functions without a direct indicator to a client’s experience.

So the best way to engage you in wanting to mind the interruptions is to show you how much this is costing your day!

Let’s do a simple math exercise:

A - A “do you have a minute” interrupt happens - 1 to 3 mins 
B - Regain focus in what you were doing before the interruption - 1 to 3 mins
C - This happening around 15 times a week

A + B = Length of the total interruption - 2 to 6 mins
Multiplying that with the number of interruptions a week = 30 mins to 1.5 hours a week lost.

What could you do extra with 30 mins to 1.5 hours? Now these are very conservative numbers. According to Edward G. Brown, the author of The Time Bandit Solution: Recovering Stolen Time You Never Knew You Had, research has found that, in the financial services industry, interruptions can take up to 238 minutes a day. Per person. What could you do extra with that time? Go to the gym? Not having to stay working long hours? The possibilities are endless really.

Tips on how to minimize interruptions

You can minimize interruptions to regain control of your own time. Here’s how:

  1. SCHEDULE – Where possible block your time to do stuff. That allows you to manage that slot of time with a “tag of acceptable unavailability”. If you work in an open space, go to a meeting room somewhere – mean it!;
  2. BE FIRM – One minute of your time sums up to extra coffee breaks, never forget. So when interrupted, be firm not to give that attention there and then. Politely channel them to schedule time for you to dedicate proper attention. The more you trend this behavior, the more people will know in the long run that interruptions are not your thing.
  3. TURN OFF NOTIFICATIONS – Yes, emails are a passive form of communication so please slot times in your day to read emails and turn off all notifications;
  4. BE CONSISTENT – No point in wanting to manage time and control it for some parts or some people, if others get to have you for that quick minute. Be consistent. With time people know work hours are work hours and you do value leaving on time with all work done.

The average American worker has fifty interruptions a day, of which seventy percent have nothing to do with work

Edwards Deming

Needless to say that I don’t want you to become the most anti-social person in the office. These tips are for you to apply with moderation. Continue to be approachable to help colleagues but do it in a way where you still have control of your time.

Disclaimer: Apologies if some interpretations may offend a reader. I do rely on literal translation at times since English is a second language. My intention with this article is to spread awareness. I welcome your feedback to ensure I will not be constantly making the same errors in translation.

I also write about my own life ,professional experience and learning curve. I am a continuous improvement learner so I welcome you to share extra information and spread awareness with me if you have other ways of analyzing the same issues or you have value-added information to the readers of this article. Thank you for reading.