Interruptions are a fact of life – one that most of us can’t avoid. Whether it’s a notification ping, an unexpected phone call, or the colleague asking, ‘do you have a minute?’, interruptions often sabotage our focus and leave us feeling frustrated.
Why are interruptions frustrating? More importantly, why is it so hard to get back to what you were doing after even a minor interruption?
Interruptions and our brains
Our brains are pretty incredible squishy blobs that consume about 20% of our bodily energy each day. As soon as an interruption occurs, there’s a lot that goes on in our brains to determine what happens next. We often overlook the mental effect that these types of interactions have on our brain.
So what happens in our brains when we face an interruption?
When we engage in a task requiring concentration and focus, we often enter a mental state known as “flow.” Flow is characterized by deep immersion, heightened productivity, and a sense of timelessness (we discuss flow states in our article about the dangers of multitasking).
Being in a flow state is generally considered a positive thing. We are our most creative and usually very happy while in a state of flow. Our prefrontal cortex takes a back seat and lets the limbic regions of the brain drive.
Getting to a flow state requires a lot of factors being just right, and an interruption can swiftly shatter this delicate balance and crash our productivity.
Brain parts that take over
The prefrontal cortex, responsible for executive functions such as decision-making and attention control, plays a crucial role in managing interruptions. When an interruption occurs, this region of the brain activates to assess the new stimulus and determine whether it warrants a shift in attention. The prefrontal cortex decides between continuing with the current task, switching to the interrupting stimulus, or multitasking between the two (which we don’t recommend).
Your posterior parietal lobe, anterior cingulate gyrus, and premotor cortex are also involved in what happens after your prefrontal cortex decides on the course of action after an interruption.
When we get interrupted, our brain faces a cognitive bottleneck known as “context switching.” This process involves disengaging from the initial task, establishing a mental framework for the interruption, and eventually re-engaging with the original task.
Research from UC Irvine found that the amount of time it takes to recover from an interruption varies from 8 to 25 minutes depending on the complexity of a task. It also found that interruptions that were related to a person’s ‘working sphere’ were less detrimental than interruptions that were unrelated.
Another study, also from UC Irvine, noted that while interruptions didn’t always increase the time to complete a task, they did cause mental stress:
“Our data suggests that people compensate for interruptions by working faster, but this comes at a price: experiencing more stress, higher frustration, time pressure and effort.”
Bottom line: while interruptions aren’t the end of the world, they have negative effects on our mental health.
2 Ways to avoid interruptions
Maybe you can’t avoid interruptions completely, but there are a few strategies to try to reduce them in your daily activities.
1. Create and stick to your boundaries
It’s easier said than done. Especially if you have an impatient coworker or small children. When possible, it’s good to set an expectation early on about when you’re available and when you’re not. This means both in person and virtually.
For example, if your team communications are primarily online, set yourself to ‘heads down’ or busy and do not respond if someone pings you. If your coworkers know you’ll respond regardless of what you’re doing, then they’ll expect it. If you don’t respond when you’ve claimed a heads down space and you’re consistent, you’ll feel less pressure to respond because no one will expect it. If you need to, tell your coworkers that you’ll be unavailable for a portion of the day to focus on a project.
2. Schedule times for specific tasks
We’re looking at you, email. Notifications are relentless, but they don’t have to be. It’s important to dedicate time to these types of interruptions. Turn off notifications (gasp!), for a set amount of time. Don’t look at your phone or watch, close your email tab, turn off any messenger notifications.
Start small – 30 minutes to an hour. Then schedule yourself fifteen minutes to go through notifications, messages, and email. Try taking a Pomodoro approach to focused time and maintenance tasks to see what works for you.
3 Tips for dealing with interruptions
Despite the most meticulous efforts to craft a non-interruption zone for ourselves, we know they will happen. When they do, here are three ways you can minimize their damage.
1. Leave landmarks
Part of why interruptions are so problematic is that when we’re done dealing with the interruption, getting back to the original task can take a herculean mental effort. If you leave yourself a quick note about where you were, what you were about to do, and a plan of attack when you return, it can cut down the time it takes to get back into the task.
Joy Birmingham, assistant director for Duke Learning & Organization Development, calls these clues ‘landmarks’. She recommends writing or typing your last thought before the interruption occurred. This breadcrumb should be able to reignite your original train of thought when you come back to the interrupted task.
2. Determine what’s urgent
Not every interruption deserves your attention. What’s pressing and vitally important for your coworker might actually be something you could get to tomorrow. If something pops up, either from a colleague or something you yourself remember, write it down and then don’t think about it anymore. You can go back and organize your notes at the end of the day and prioritize what to tackle tomorrow.
3. Make your transition deliberate
Jennifer Ahern-Dodson, founder of Duke University’s Faculty Write Program, works with faculty in varying disciplines who are trying to balance writing with many other responsibilities. She recommends people think about how they want to transition purposefully back into their task.
The example she uses is closing your web browser after responding to an interrupting email. While it may seem like a small thing, being mindful about the action signals to your brain that the interruption is over and you’re ready to move on.
“I think one of the reasons why it might take so long to refocus is that we’re not closing the loop on the previous thing that we did,” Ahern-Dodson says. “We can’t begin the next thing because we haven’t stopped thinking about the last thing.”
Yes, you will face interruptions throughout your day. Hopefully, you can minimize their negative effects and find ways to avoid them (some of the time).