Office interruptions, interrupted

Posted by in Productivity

Nobody enjoys being interrupted when they’re trying to get something done. Still, if you ask a hundred people where they’re interrupted the most, they’ll answer the place that’s paying them to get something done: work. It’s beyond ironic, and it needs to stop.

Office interruptions can be divided into two kinds: voluntary and involuntary – meaning you either generate them, or become subject to them. Just to get this out of the way: you know those few distractions here and there with a little Facebook, som watercooler chat and five minutes of Angry Birds on your smartphone? Those things don’t kill your productivity. They’re voluntary breaks, like the ones people have been making since the dawn of agriculture, when working non stop first became an integral part of human lifestyle.

Of course, I’d rather you had a proper break, but being distracted is better than nothing.

The real problem

The real problem, however, lies with the involuntary breaks – the ones that occur when you’re sitting at your desk, or standing around doing something and then suddenly someone comes up to you and either wants to talk about how or what you’re doing, or something completely different. Regardless, the end result is that you lose the concentration that you’ve carefully been building since you started on a given task, and that your flow is broken.

For more on the general insanity of this, I recommend a TED Talk (embedded below) given by Jason Fried a while back where he delves further into this problem. Managers, in particular, are in for a treat here.

In brief, Fried expresses a disdain for meetings and managers interrupting your work – which he bases upon the premise that people tend to go everywhere but work when they really have to get work done. I concur; the quality (and, in many cases, the amount) of the work you do is inversely proportionate to the number of times you get interrupted.

Alas, it’s not always easy, or even possible, to tell your boss that he or she needs to get off your back so you can get something done. Fortunately, however, there are other measures you can take in order to dampen the negative consequences of an interruptive atmosphere, whether it’s created by your boss or – at least equally problematic – your co-workers.

The fix

Is deceivingly simple. Just about every colleague I’ve ever discussed the topic of interruptions with has agreed – or at the very least respected – that sometimes you just have to be able to focus and concentrate on a higher level. What you need to do, then, is to exploit this sentiment to everyone’s advantage.

First of all, bring up the topic and see if there’s a consensus (which there likely will be, meaning you’re just making people aware that they, too, wish for a better solution). Once you’re fairly certain you have support from your colleagues on this, all you need is to create a system that works much like an instant messaging client, in that you can indicate your status to the world – except we’re doing a simpler variety.

Buy a stack of red Post-its, and suggest people just tack one discretely onto their computer screen when they don’t want to be disturbed. (It’s an uncommon colour due to how poorly writing shows on them, meaning there’s little reason to worry about misinterpretations).

That’s it, you ask?

In a word, yes. You see, all other interruptions can to some extent be controlled. You can close your e-mail client, log out of instant messaging, silence your phone and soforth – but you simply cannot get rid of people physically approaching you unless you seclude yourself from them.

What this doesn’t resolve, however, is having to answer to a superior. That means you have to get them on board as well. After probing matters with colleagues, broach the topic with your superiors and argue that your work would improve even further if you were able to maintain focus for longer periods of time. Don’t mention that you’ve talked with your colleagues about the matter unless probed; poor managers have a tendency to wrongly interpret such actions as a kind of mutiny.

Now, good managers will understand your predicament, whereas poor managers will not. The key to convincing the latter is that they fear loss of control or power by allowing you to work more independently, which can easily be negated by agreeing to a more fixed schedule for follow-ups. Suggest, for instance, that you stop by your manager’s office twice a day to give him or her an update on your progress, if they crave it.

If you do get everyone on board, though, remember that you have to pull together in order for this to work. A little positive reinforcement goes a long way, so after a day or two you should take the opportunity to comment on how much your workflow has improved, and ask others whether they agree. Again, there’s little chance anyone but the watercooler blowhard will disagree – but how to handle him is a topic for another day.