The world today is full of interruptions, like social media, IM, emails, phone calls, or your nosy cube mate. All of these distractions can make it hard to get anything done. The bad news: some interruptions can make you less effective at work. The good news: research shows that you can manage interruptions. Read more for some tips for managing interruptions at work!

First, it’s important to recognize that there are different kinds of interruptions at work. Some are negative, but others can actually be helpful. The four types of interruptions are: intrusions, breaks, distractions, and discrepancies. I’ll outline each of these interruption types below and add some tips for managing them.

Intrusive Interruptions

Intrusions are unexpected interruptions. They are caused by someone else and can make you lose focus on your work. They can be a phone call from a coworker, a visit from a friend, or an unexpected delivery. Intrusions can cause you to take more time than usual to complete a task, which is stressful. Intrusions can also make you lose your train of thought. This can make it take longer to get back into the “groove”. While it is possible that some intrusions can have positive benefits, by providing you with information you wouldn’t otherwise have, intrusions have more negative than positive consequences.

So, how do you deal with intrusions? A good way to fight intrusions is to be proactive about managing them. Make sure that people in your office know when you need “quiet time” by posting a sign or letting people know you are busy on your office IM. Blocking out time on your shared calendar to complete tasks can also let people in your office know that you shouldn’t be disturbed. You can also tell your family members that they won’t be able to reach you during certain hours, unless it’s an absolute emergency. By creating awareness about when you need time to focus, you can fend off unnecessary intrusions before they arise.

interruptions on phone
How good are you at managing digital interruptions?

Breaks as Interruptions

You initiate breaks, whether you planned them or not. Because you control them, the negative effects of breaks are less when compared to other types of interruptions. Breaks can help you to cope with stress or manage fatigue. They can also help you to make an effective rhythm to your work, possibly resulting in more creativity. However, taking breaks when unnecessary is just procrastination and can cause delays on projects.

The important takeaway for managing breaks is to be honest with yourself about why you’re taking them. Do you need a moment to step away from something to get your thoughts together? Are you truly too stressed or tired to continue? Then, you might need a break. Do you just not know where to start? Is it a task you don’t particularly like? Then, you might want to push through and force yourself to find a solution. By being honest about your reasons for taking a break, you can ensure that you only take breaks when they will be beneficial for you.

interruptions for coffee
How much do you really need that coffee break? It’s important to figure out if interruptions are necessary or just helping you avoid your work.

Distracting Interruptions

Some interruptions are due to other activities that are happening in the environment around you. Being in a crowded coffee shop, being able to hear another colleague’s phone conversation, or having the television on while you’re working can all serve as distractions. Distractions are generally negative because they take energy away from the task at hand. This is especially true when the task is complex. When tasks are easier and don’t require a lot of energy, having a slight distraction in the environment can actually cause you to focus more energy on your work tasks.

The best way to manage distractions, then, is to filter them out when you’re working on complex tasks and to allow for moderate distractions when you’re working on boring tasks. So, put some noise canceling headphones on when you really need to concentrate (no music – that’s a distraction too, believe it or not!). But, feel free to turn the TV on or engage in light conversation with coworkers while you are completing mindless tasks. You should make sure that the TV shows or conversations aren’t more complex than the task itself though. If not, you’ll get sucked into the distraction instead of doing your work.

interruptions from noise
Background noise only helps if you are doing tasks that are boring. For complicated tasks, turn distractions off!

Discrepancies as Interruptions

Finally, your expectations for a situation and the reality of the situation may not align. These discrepancies interrupt your thoughts and actions. For example, imagine you walk into a meeting to find that your client is a former acquaintance from college. You might be a little thrown off your game. Similarly, imagine you’re working on an important project and come to find out that your competitor is working on the same type of project. You might lose focus on the task. Discrepancies can be negative because they can cause emotional reactions that are hard to brush off. They can even decrease your performance if you try to ignore the discrepancy.

However, discrepancies can be positive if they cause you to realize that you need to change your way of doing things. They may also be helpful if they ultimately cause you to realize that you need to be more mindful about staying in the present moment. They may prompt you not to pass judgement when things don’t meet your expectations. The best way to manage discrepancies is to learn to be more flexibile and adaptable. Getting yourself out of your comfort zone now and again can help you build these skills. These skills can be useful when you are in situations you find uncomfortable. Over time, you may grow appropriate skills (like mindfulness, as we have talked about in a prior post) for coping with situations that don’t match your expectations.

Overall, interruptions can have negative consequences, but when properly managed, they can have positive effects. What are your top tips for managing interruptions? We’d love to hear from you about how you use interruptions to facilitate productivity and how you avoid interruptions that take you off track.

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