Karin Stewart, founder and president of Daily Mastery, is today’s featured guest blogger.
The average American worker is interrupted eight to 11 times each hour. The majority of these interruptions come from phones and email. Although modern communications have made it easier to grow a business, they have also created new ways to get distracted while working. These interruptions cost time – in some cases, a lot of time!
More Time Lost Than You Might Realize
Of course, there is the time involved in the actual interruption, which often takes you away from more important tasks. Then, there is the time your brain needs to transition from one task to the other. Unlike computers, our brains can’t transition instantaneously, because the human working memory can contain only seven or so items at any given time. As a result, for each task change, the content of the working memory needs to be shifted and stored for future use. Then the items needed for the current topic need to be brought to the forefront. This shuffling of data in your brain happens each time you are interrupted.
Here’s an example of what I mean. You’re working on your computer. The phone rings, and you pick it up. It’s a client, wanting to talk about a completely different subject than what you are working on. If you’re like most individuals, you’ll need 30 seconds to two minutes until you have the situation and information to which your caller is referring in your mind. This is the time needed by your brain to move items from working memory to storage and then retrieve the items you need from long-term memory.
After the call, even more time is needed to refocus on what you were working on. Once again, the transition is not instantaneous. Typically, it takes anywhere between five and 25 minutes to recover the focus you had before the interruption.
Adding up the time involved, each interruption can cost six to 29 minutes. If you have multiple interruptions every hour, that’s a lot of wasted time! Looking at it differently, it means that a task that would take you less than 60 minutes to complete uninterrupted can easily take several hours to finish if interruptions are involved.
What You Can Do
There are many strategies you can use to minimize disruptions. For instance, you can place a “do not disturb” sign on your door to tell others to not interrupt you for a set amount of time. If this is not an option, you can go somewhere else, such as a local coffee shop or the public library, where you won’t be disturbed.
Another effective technique for minimizing the time of an interruption is setting a “time bomb.” At the beginning of a call, tell the caller that you have only five minutes to speak. After the minutes are up, tell the person that you have to go and end the call.
Finally, there are those times when you must simply turn off your technology to get some dedicated time without distractions. In fact, it’s good to schedule distraction-free time on a regular basis. Don’t think you can do it? It’s actually easier than you think and simply the most effective way to focus on a task or to complete something that requires dedicated concentration. Give it a try! Close your email and route your calls to voicemail for just an hour and see what you can get done when you’re not getting interrupted. You’ll probably be amazed with the results!
Karin Stewart is the founder and president of Daily Mastery. She provides individuals and small businesses with the tools and skills to have a balanced life while increasing productivity.
Originally published Jun 09, 2011, updated Aug 07, 2020