Dealing with interruptions at work

Matrix organization structures with their high levels of connectedness, multiple stakeholders and tendency to over-control and over-communicate tend to create a ‘high interrruption’ environment. This has a big impact on our effectiveness at work in the matrix.

Academics have been studying the impact of interruption at work for several years. Here is a summary of what they have found.

  1. On average people work for 11 minutes on each specific task they are involved in.

  2. Interruptions happen every 3-8 minutes (depends on the study)

  3. The impact of being distracted by constant interruptions is equivalent to a reduction of 10 IQ points – the same as missing one night’s sleep or over twice the impairment caused by smoking marijuana

  4. Once interrupted, 23% of tasks are not returned to the same day.

  5. Of the tasks that are returned to the same day, on average there is a 25 minute gap during which people perform 2 or more different tasks before returning to the original task.

  6. The biggest impairment in performance is in tasks needing concentration and focus. These are also the tasks that take longest to “get back up to speed” with when we return to them

  7. Highest levels of performance in many tasks are found when people can sustain high levels of concentration and get “into the flow”, this typically takes 20 minutes sustained concentration to achieve.

  8. The biggest interrupters are email, other people dropping by and the phone.

  9. On average people receive 100 to 180 messages of one type or another each day (several different studies)

From these findings it is clear that constant interruptions are a reality of working life today, and that they tend to impair performance. We cannot just shut off communication as this is a vital element of our jobs. So what can we do?

To manage this we need to have strategies to deal with the inevitable interruptions and to quickly re-engage with important tasks. I would like to hear your ideas on how best to this.

I plan to post some of my thoughts on this subject next week. What do you think?

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