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This article first appeared in Choice Health magazine.

Few of us can choose to work in “splendid isolation”, and so we have to plan for interruptions. The best way to stop these getting out of hand is to plan for them...

The information that follows is taken from a forthcoming book by Maurice Tomkinson titled ‘Managing Resilient Teams’. The book is currently being edited by Ann Lowe, and this particular extract focuses on the very important topic of interruptions, and how to manage them in order to achieve optimum efficiency. But before we get to that, we need to look at why regular interruptions at work create so many issues…

The problem with interruptions and attempting to multi-task

“Multi-tasking” is a concept that comes from the computer industry, however the terms has found its way into business and daily life. Modern computers often have multiple cores, allowing them to multi-task more effectively, but original computers could only do one thing at a time.

Multi-tasking was achieved by dividing the time available into slices, and giving each task a slice in turn. When switching between tasks the operating system would have to store the complete environment of the first task, load up a previously stored environment for the second, and then pass control to the new task. As the computer became more heavily loaded there would come a point when the time taken to perform the task switching used up so much of its capacity that it would spend all it’s time switching tasks, effectively doing nothing. This process is known as “thrashing”.

How is ‘thrashing’ relevant to interruptions?

The reason for explaining is that you may recognise it as a familiar experience.

Imagine doing a task that requires a lot of attention, such as computer programming, translating a complex document, writing a delicately-phrased letter, or adding up a long column of figures. If you are interrupted in the middle of this, by a phone call for instance, by the time you get back to your task you have lost focus, and it can take many minutes to get back to where you were. If you now imagine a whole series of interruptions occurring, one on top of another, you may get nowhere with your original task.

Humans have the same problem as computers when it comes to switching between tasks, but with added complications. If we are deeply engrossed in an activity (sometimes called the “Flow state”), our brainwave activity becomes organised in specific patterns that are relevant to that activity, and when an interruption occurs those patterns are lost. Some research has shown that it can take 20 minutes or more to return to the original state after an interruption. Other research connects medical errors, such as mistakes in drug dispensing, to interruptions occurring part way through these tasks.

Why interruptions create stress

It also seems that interruptions are stressful. Computers can switch tasks without any emotional impact, but when humans are interrupted the hormone noradrenaline is released. Noradrenaline is a stress hormone, which along with adrenaline triggers the fight/flight reflex. There may be evolutionary reasons for this – in the environment in which humans evolved any interruption could be associated with a threat.

In order to work effectively in the long-term, more difficult tasks, you need to create an environment that is free of interruptions. Ann discussed with Maurice the process of writing his book and he shared with her how freeing himself of interruptions allowed for great progress: ‘When I manage to free up a whole day of uninterrupted time, I can compose significant chapters of the book. This equates to more than I achieve in two weeks, if those two weeks were filled with interruptions.’

As you take on more activities you will naturally have to switch between them to make progress on all of them. It is therefore very important to manage your workload, so that you don’t reach the point of “thrashing”.

Some tips to overcome ‘thrashing’:

  • Recognise that as the number of activities you are doing goes up, your efficiency will go down
  • Become aware when you are reaching your upper limit, where your efficiency crashes catastrophically
  • If you are obliged to take on more work, manage expectations as to when it will be completed
  • Make allowance for interruptions in any estimate of timescales
  • Create interruption-free quality time for yourself and defend it
  • Plan to do your more difficult tasks when your energy levels are highest.

Handling interruptions

Of course, there are times when interruptions happen, and so what can you do to make sure that you minimise the impact they can have on your day? Here are some suggestions:  

  • Set aside specific times when you are available for discussion, and discourage interruptions at other times
  • Schedule meetings or set aside time when colleagues can ask questions, rather than interrupting you
  • Keep the discussions short – if the subject raised needs more time schedule a separate meeting to discuss it, and ask the person to send you an outline of the subject in advance
  • Educate your colleagues to think for themselves – if they come with a question, instead of answering immediately, try reflecting it back – “how would you suggest tackling this?”, “what options have you considered so far?”
  • If you don’t want to be distracted, politely decline – you could use a phrase such as:   “I’d like to be able to help but right now I just have too much to get done. I’m really sorry but thank you for asking.”
  • Use the power of technology to supply information – set up a “knowledge base” - lists of frequently asked questions, articles and resources, which you can refer colleagues to when they need help.

© ‘Managing Resilient Teams’ will be released in 2014 and is written by Maurice Tomkinson, co-founder of The Resilience Programme. To register your interest in this publication please contact us.