Back in my teaching days, frequent interruptions posed one of the biggest challenges to getting my work done. When I went to work for myself—in the privacy of my home office--I thought I had put the problem of constant interruptions behind me, but I discovered an unpleasant truth: I had gotten into the bad habit of interrupting myself. I’d be reading a new piece of coaching research and click on a hyperlink in the article. That might lead me to three other articles and a quick check of email before I turned my attention back to the initial reading. Or I’d be in the middle of writing a blog post, and I’d see a new email notification pop up on my screen, so I’d toggle over to see if it was urgent. (Let’s face it; I’m a life coach, not an EMT. Few things are that urgent.) Worst of all, I’d think of an email I meant to send, interrupt my writing or reading, send the email and then compulsively check Facebook or LinkedIn. I realized that I was interrupting myself incessantly.
Turns out that I’m not alone. We allow technology to constantly interrupt us, and then we get in the habit of interrupting ourselves. A 2008 study of Google workers found that they interrupted themselves by shifting from one task to another—moving from reading or writing a report or doing programming to answering email or looking up something online—every five minutes or so. A 2011 study found that knowledge workers such as managers, financial analysts, and software developers were interrupted every ten minutes or less and that half these interruptions were self interruptions. These researchers concluded that a single interruption can derail us for 20 minutes or more. Another study, this one done in 2016, showed that interrupting yourself can often be more disruptive than an external interruption.
In an interview with Fast Company, Dr. Gloria Mark of the University of California, Irvine, one of the authors of the 2011 study, outlined the costs of self-interruption. The first and most obvious was increased levels of stress because of the pressure of trying to finish tasks in spite of the interruptions. There’s also an increased level of mental fatigue from the effort of constantly refocusing our attention. Dr. Mark and her colleagues also found that many people compensated for the interruptions by setting aside time at night and on weekends, often at home, to complete tasks they had been unable to complete during the workday because of interruptions, so interruptions were taking a toll on personal time.
One of the more serious consequences of frequent interruptions is that it is making our thinking more superficial. As Dr. Mark put it, “when people are switching contexts every 10 and half minutes they can’t possibly be thinking deeply. There’s no way people can achieve flow. When I write a research article, it takes me a couple of hours before I can even begin to think creatively. If I was switching every 10 and half minutes, there’s just no way I’d be able to think deeply about what I’m doing. This is really bad for innovation.” In other words, you can’t do deep thinking if you are constantly interrupting yourself.
I find I have to fight the self-interruption habit on an on-going basis. Some strategies that have worked for me are closing my email or minimizing my browser window when I am writing or reading online, reading more things on paper, and writing outlines and initial drafts by hand. It also helps to leave my computer and phone on the other side of the room while I am reading or writing; if I have to get up to interrupt myself, I won’t do it unless I have a really good reason. I’ve also had some success in using the Pomodoro technique, a time management strategy which involves breaking work down into concentrated intervals (30 minutes usually works best for me) punctuated by 5 minute breaks, using a timer to prompt me to break and to resume my concentrated work. Somehow knowing that I have scheduled a break helps me resist the urge to interrupt myself—at least sometimes!
How about you? Do you interrupt yourself? I’d love to hear readers’ strategies for fighting the self-interruption habit, and I’ll share the best ones in this space in the future.