Would you be surprised to learn that when you are distracted while working, you can make mistakes when you get back to your intended task? The results of a study by the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that you also have a greater chance of “resuming at a different point in [your] train of thought” then if you had not been interrupted. Perhaps the most telling thing the researchers discovered is that even quick interruptions of less than three seconds made participants more likely to make a mistake.
… when their attention was shifted from the task at hand for a mere 2.8 seconds, they became twice as likely to mess up … the error rate tripled when the interruptions averaged 4.4 seconds.
Interruptions seem to be a part of everyone’s daily work life and they can come in a variety of forms: a request from a colleague, a phone call from a client, or even your own desire to do something other than what you’re supposed to be doing. All of these moments stop you from fully focusing on your important tasks. It’s not that those other things may not also be worthy of your attention. They very well may be, but when you attend to them is essential to how productive you can be.
Since shifting your focus even for short periods of time has a direct effect on the quality of your work, it makes sense to:
Figure out what your regular interruptions are
Are there interruptions that happen frequently during your day? Do specific people continually seek your attention causing you to pause what you’re doing? Do you respond to all phone calls and emails immediately? Take a few minutes to jot down all the things that tend to take your focus away from your intended tasks.
Come up with a game plan
No matter what the interruptions are, you can thwart them with a strategic game plan. Create a time plan so you can manage your tasks. By doing this, you’ll be able to set realistic timeframes for working on your to-do’s and setting your schedule accordingly.
Share your calendar with others. Make your schedule available to colleagues so they’ll know when you’ll have time available to meet or talk with them. You may still get interrupted, but hopefully your colleagues will begin to request your attention when they know you’re not otherwise occupied.
Use friendly, but direct reminders. When you do get interrupted, consider using statements such as:
- “I’m working on a project that is making my brain spin and requires a lot of focus. Can we meet this afternoon at 3:00 to discuss your matter in detail? I’ll be much more helpful to you then when my mind isn’t filled with this project.”
- “Unfortunately, I’m swamped today finishing project X so we can meet the deadline. I won’t be able to help today. Have you talked to Sally? I know she has been interested in getting involved in a project such as this.”
- “I’d like to help, but if you need an answer today, I’ll have to to say no.”
You can also post a sign on your office door (if you have one) or cubicle panel, and you can even wear one. When I worked in the corporate world, my workspace was in a highly trafficked area and it wasn’t unusual for someone to tap me on the shoulder with a request. Since I didn’t have a door that I could close, I sometimes wore a sign that said something like: “I’m not here. I’ll back at 3 pm.” Of course, I explained to others in the office what I was doing so that they wouldn’t be caught off guard or be put off by my sign.
Control self-imposed distractions. Remove the temptation to share your attention with unimportant activities by turning off email notifications, silencing your phone, or forwarding your calls to voicemail or another person. You can also use a browser extension like Leechblock to block your favorite websites while you work on your most important projects.
Stop interruptions before they happen
Planning ahead is a great way to limit distractions before they occur. Is a teammate, project manager, or client waiting on information from you? If the next action lies with you, consider completing it ahead of schedule — before they contact you with a reminder. This is a win-win solution for everyone and you’ll be rewarded with a solid block of focused time. Additionally, you can be proactive and keep others up-to-date with your project by communicating with them first, and on your schedule. When others are well-informed of your progress, they won’t interrupt you to see how you’re doing.
Use strategies to help you get back on track
Whether you need to take a phone call or reply to an urgent email, try to keep your time away as short as possible. And, think about writing down your thoughts before you stop working so you have a frame of reference for when you return. You could leave yourself a note with your voice recorder or you can type in your last train of thought directly in the document you’re composing.
When possible, go to another location
If you find that you’re getting an influx of interruptions, find a different workspace (if possible). Pick an alternate location that allows you focus and get stuff done (library, local cafe, co-working office, conference room).