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How to Prevent Interruptions at Work

Six strategic tactics for an interruption-free work zone.
Image: A man wears headphones in an office
A man wears headphones in an office.Georgijevic / Getty Images

It’s Friday afternoon, which means you’re powering through your to-do list at record speed in hopes of packing up and starting your weekend an hour early.

Until Sheryl from Sales stops by for a chat about weekend plans … followed by a co-worker who wants to discuss a project for next week. And just like that you’ve gone from calling it quits early to putting in overtime.

It may not seem like a few short interruptions throughout the day have that big of an impact on your workflow, but they add up to some pretty surprising effects on our productivity.

Research conducted at the University of California at Irvine found that on average, office workers are interrupted or switch tasks every three minutes and five seconds. And when they’re interrupted — whether it’s by a phone call, email or a visitor to their cubicle — it takes an average of 25 minutes to return to the original task.

And you’re not alone when it comes to dodging chatty co-workers. A 2011 study published in the journal Organization Studies found that face-to-face interruptions account for one-third more intrusions than email or phone calls. Which is why a computer scientist from the University of British Columbia (UBC) invented the FlowLight; a desk light that alerts your colleagues when you are “in the zone” and should not be disturbed.

On average, office workers are interrupted or switch tasks every three minutes and five seconds.

“When you’re interrupted, it can take a long time to get back into your work and it’s more likely you’ll make mistakes,” said Thomas Fritz, an assistant professor at UBC who started work on the invention at the University of Zurich. “The light is like displaying your Skype status — it tells your colleagues whether you’re busy or open for a chat.”

Initially, the light switched between green and red based on keyboard and mouse activity, but researchers also tested a more advanced version that uses biometric sensors to detect heart rate variability, pupil dilation, eye blinks or even brainwave activity.

You may be thinking, I doubt a red light is going to stop Greg from barging into my cubicle, but you'd be surprised. Researchers tested the light on about 450 people and found that not only did employees report fewer interruptions, but it also had a broader effect on the culture of the office, encouraging people to be more respectful of each other’s time and more aware of when they could, and couldn’t, interrupt a colleague. Some even reported that the lights motivated them to finish their work faster.

Until FlowLights are on a store shelf by you, you can use the findings to implement a few smart strategies of your own to avoid workplace interruptions and give your productivity a boost — and maybe even make Friday happy hour for once.

6 Ways to Deal with Office Interruptions

Wear headphones. Headphones serve as a visual signal, similar to the desk light, that you are in work mode and don’t want to be bothered. “Headphones can be your ticket to your own personal workspace. Whether listening to the latest pop music or your favorite movie soundtrack, headphones allow you to create your own “work zone” amidst the office chaos,” says Craig Jarrow, the author of "Time Management Ninja." “Some environments are too loud and chaotic to be conducive to concentration and intense work. When you are concentrating on a tough task, the last thing you need is to be distracted by the latest hallway chat about politics or sports scores. Let your music eliminate distractions and keep you on task.” If you find music distracting, listen to nothing. The headphones on your ears will still signal to passersby that you are busy.

Move offices. Your colleagues can’t interrupt you if they can’t find you. Grab your laptop and head to a conference room, empty office or even the coffee shop down the block. That change of scenery may also provide a boost in productivity. In his research, Charles Duhigg, Pulitzer Prize winner and author of two best-sellers, "Smarter Faster Better" and "The Power of Habit," found that the only consistent factor when it comes to maximizing productivity is change — whether that be changing your location, reworking your workflow or even sitting in a different chair.

Use your “away message.” Change your Out of Office reply to say that you’ll respond later in the day or tomorrow, even. Block time out on your Outlook calendar as busy and utilize the Do Not Disturb button on your phone. This may not cut back on in-person drop bys, but it will cut back on other external interruptions that can distract you from the task at hand.

Stop interrupting yourself. Stop putting all the blame on Joan from down the hall … you’re just as much to blame for the interuptions. “What fascinates me is that people interrupted themselves almost as much as they were interrupted by external sources,” said Gloria Mark, associate professor at the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences at the University of California, Irvine, who conducted a study on workplace interruptions. “They interrupted themselves about 44 percent of the time.” Indulging the urge to check in on social media or responding to a text message are internal sources of interruption you may not even be aware you are committing. Put your phone away in a bag or drawer where notifications won’t distract you, and consider installing an app on your desktop designed to block social media uses, to minimize the temptation of scrolling Facebook.

Set up an office time lock. Chances are, other members of your team are experiencing the same issue, so why not ban together to cut back on interruptions? Edward G. Brown, an efficiency and workflow consultant to financial firms, recommends setting up “mutual time locks” where everyone is given dedicated quiet time to concentrate, and everyone agrees to not interrupt others. This will create a period of time, every day that you know you will be given an uninterrupted period to work your most important tasks. “Once we trained people how to ask for Time Locks, how to set them up, and how to honor them, we found not only qualitative improvements in workers, but quantitatively, one of our clients said that, if they were conservative, they estimated personal productivity shot up 40 to 60 percent, maybe more,” Brown told The Washington Post.

Bookmark your place. You won’t always be able to shut down interactions, but you can help speed up the time it takes to dive back into your work. How many times have you turned away from your computer only to sit back down a few minutes later, completely blanking on what you were doing, or what thought you had pressed pause on? Research shows that bookmarking your place, marking the next step with a large, bright symbol like a red arrow, can help you dive back into a task more quickly and reduce errors. Laura Stack, a productivity trainer and author, suggests asking the interrupter to wait while you write down your last thought on a sticky note and post the note on the page or screen to mark where you stopped working. “The visual cue can cut the time needed to restart a task by as much as 80 percent,” she says.