We all hate interruptions. That’s why it felt so good to work from home when the Covid-19 pandemic hit. No one dropping in uninvited. Lots of time to stay focused on the actual work and get things done. Productivity remained high, and everything felt great. Only after a while did we see some of the negatives creeping in. The endless working hours, the Zoom fatigue, the lack of real human connection. Without realizing it, we may even miss the interruptions we so hated when being in the office.
Enough was said about how damaging even a tiny interruption can be to our focus and our productivity. Eyal Ophir, Clifford Nass, and Anthony D. Wagner published a paper discussing the results of their research into the impact of social media and multitasking on the human brain. It showed that the constant switching between tasks has a profound and lasting effect on our brains. Brain plasticity is a great thing that can help us become more. Still, it can also severely inhibit our abilities if we abuse it. Being constantly interrupted is not conducive to well-being.
So-called deep work, a block of uninterrupted time when we can get to a state of flow, is incredibly powerful. The term was coined by Cal Newport in his book Deep Work. Newport talks about the importance of significant stretches of uninterrupted time to achieve our life goals and produce results. But there is no escape from technology. Constant electronic communication, including instant messaging applications and email, makes it so hard to focus on what matters to us. We feel obligated to answer to others as soon as they ask, and we ignore our priorities. In this context, someone dropping in when we are in the office is a minor nuisance.
The good side of interruptions
Working from home and possibly switching off all the annoying instant messaging apps and email can help us focus. And yet, as with everything in life, even lack of interruptions has its dark side. Harshad Puranik from the University of Illinois and the team came up with a surprising benefit of interruptions. They have analyzed 247 publications researching interruptions and how they impact people. Aside from the negative consequences, interruptions can also lead to some positives. Through interruptions, we can get critical information that helps with achieving progress. These unexpected diversions can provide intellectual stimulation to those engaged in monotonous tasks and can be seen as job enrichment. More importantly, being interrupted by someone who asks for help or feedback can lead to satisfaction as it allows us to show competence, and if the conversation is enjoyable, it makes us feel we belong and are needed. This, in turn, leads to higher job and life satisfaction.
Puranik, Koopman, and Vough addressed the last point in the follow-up study. To show the social aspect of interruptions and their positive impact on well-being, the researchers run a 3-week sampling study of 111 participants. The effect of belongingness was clearly visible and acted as a counter-balance for the negative impact of the interruption. This effect especially applies when employees have high task interdependence and high work scheduling autonomy, as that can increase the positive association between interruptions and belongingness.
Putting it all together
Not all interruptions are created equal. Many of them can slow down your progress on a given task but can provide vital information for long-term success and, more importantly, make you feel valued. They create a feeling that you belong.
So instead of trying to remove interruptions altogether, which is not feasible anyway, learn to expect them and manage them appropriately. It means you need to anticipate that something may interrupt your work and plan for it. Have backup plans or a system that allows you to resume the work more quickly after interruption.
What is your take on the topic? Do you believe that interruptions are inherently bad or do you see the positive side too? How do you handle interruptions? Do you interrupt others when they work? For what reasons? Do you believe that in-person interruptions are part of the social fabric of any workplace and are needed for building a strong culture?
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