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Got a minute?

My work life is plagued with interruptions – people who want me to deal with their concerns right then. Alison Motluk in NewScientist this week looks at the phenomenon of ‘being interrupted’. Interruptions cost the US economy $588 billion per year. Information workers get interrupted on average every 3 minutes.

The effects are severe. Being bombarded with emails and phone-calls has a larger effect on your IQ than smoking marijuana and none of the euphoric delight. It can create apparent attention deficit disorder (distraction, disorganization, impulsiveness) so you can’t eventually get anything done – but symptoms disappear if you take a holiday.

Moreover, it is not just external events that drive us to distraction – 50% of interruptions we experience are self-imposed – about half of interruptions. We need to be delivered from temptation to be diverted, from the compulsive need to check our email, too chat with friends and so on. We need to prioritise.

The suggestions made for ‘surfing the wave of interruptions’ include making your office face away from the flow of people – I’ll switch mine so that – when I work I face out the window. Stand up when someone is in the process of interrupting you so they know what they are doing and don’t offer them a chair. Put a big clock in full view of visitors and glare at it while they are interrupting you. Cutting two centimeters off the front legs of a chair discourages long stays.

If you must put up with interruptions keep a notebook to signify where you are up to when interrupted. Or put workers in an open space environment of the type despised by Jason Soon – in such environments people interrupt each other more often but at more convenient times.

And, of course, be tough. Tell people twhen you are busy and apologise while doing so. Offer to schedule a meeting for another time, or have regular times each day when you have an open-door policy. Finally – and this is painful – have the guts to turn off your email, phone and instant messenger until the job is done.

3 comments to Got a minute?

  • Denzil

    Harry keep up the good work I enjoy reading your postings.

    I get annoyed when students knock on my door and ask: “Are you busy?” The implication is that I must spend a lot of my time in the office reading the paper or playing computer games! So for students who need to see me on a regular basis I have them trained to ask: “Can I interrupt you?”. Now there is recognition of how busy you can be and I’m in a position to say no and suggest a more convenient time.

  • patrick

    Sorry, all those deletes are me, something is screwing up my postings, leaving the preview fine, but the post wierd.

    What I was saying is those figures are rubbish, and shame on you, a real economist, for touting them.

  • hc

    patrick, thanks for the Slate link.

    Slate makes one claim (it is an interesting argument) and NewScientist reports another. The precise size is immaterial to the argument – the cost however it is measured is large.

    Your general point is correct. Statements like “The cost to the economy is X” are invariably misleading as I found recently when checking the costs of alcohol abuse.

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