Managing interruptions at work: What we learned surveying hundreds of RescueTime users about their worst distractions

“Hey! Can I ask you a quick question?”

It’s pretty much impossible to get through a workday without at least a few interruptions. In fact, when we surveyed hundreds of RescueTime users, 98% said they were interrupted at least a few times every single day with nearly half of them saying they’re interrupted frequently.

Interruptions kill our productivity, take away our focus, and can wreak havoc on our motivation. Yet we treat them as a given in today’s work culture.

As Jonathan Spira, author of Overload! How Too Much Information Is Hazardous To Your Organization, explains, interruptions can eat up 28 billion wasted hours a year, at a loss of almost $1 trillion to the U.S. economy.

So why do we let something as destructive as interruptions invade our workday? And is there a way to save ourselves from them?

Interruptions at Work: The true cost of that “quick” question

Last month, we surveyed hundreds of RescueTime users to understand how much interruptions affect their workday, which interruptions are hardest to ignore, and what solutions they’ve tried for dealing with them.

Here’s what we found out:

51.5% of people are interrupted frequently throughout the day

For half the people we spoke to, interruptions were a constant threat to their focus. With an additional 46.5% saying they get interrupted at least a few times a day.

Level of workplace interruptions

Focus is one of our most important resources, yet 98% of us can’t seem to get through the day without at least being interrupted a few times.

Face-to-face interruptions are still the most common (and the most distracting)

You might think that tools like email or Slack are some of the most common workday interruptions, but our survey said otherwise. In fact, 64% of people said their most common interruption was a face-to-face distraction like a coworker dropping by to ask a question.

Worst workplace interruptions

What makes face-to-face interruptions especially destructive is that we can’t ignore them.

51.2% of people we spoke to said that face-to-face interruptions are the most urgent and hardest to ignore. (In comparison, 50% of people said they get interrupted regularly by emails, yet most agreed they are the easiest to ignore).

And those who work from home aren’t necessarily safe, either. When filtered by just people who work at home, we found that 43% said they also regularly deal with face-to-face interruptions (mostly from family members or other people in the house).

We go to great lengths to protect our focus

When it comes to avoiding interruptions at work, unfortunately our most available solution is to hide from them.

48.5% of people we spoke to said they would go into “headphone prison” to signal they were focusing and shouldn’t be interrupted.

While a third of people said they have to physically separate themselves from coworkers if they don’t want to be interrupted (such as closing the door to their office or working out of a meeting room).

Workplace interruption solutions

When interruptions can’t be hidden from, a large group of people said they purposefully start working early or stay late to get meaningful work done without distraction.

Yet interruptions aren’t just in-person. When it comes to digital distractions, less than half of people we spoke to have changed their notification settings to be less interrupting. While only 29% use Do Not Disturb mode.

Interruptions affect you whether you work from home or in an office

One of the great things lots of people talk about when it comes to working from home is not being interrupted as often. Which make sense. When you’re not surrounded by coworkers, you should be able to focus more and be more productive.

Yet, our research found that while the interruption landscape might look different depending on where you work, no one is totally safe.

For one, people who work from home are less likely to get constantly interrupted compared to those in an office of 50 or more people (43.6% vs. 55%). They’re also much less likely to complain about face-to-face interruptions (80% vs. 43%).

Work from home vs working from office distractions

However, remote workers deal with significantly more phone calls (58% vs. 18%), and an equal amount of emails and IM messages as office workers.

No one talks about interruptions. But almost everyone says they make them less productive.

Finally, we wanted to know if people had tried to find solutions for their interrupted days.

Our results showed that, while everyone agrees that interruptions make them significantly less productive, they’re almost impossible to deal with.

The majority of people we surveyed said they reach the end of the day and feel like they haven’t accomplished anything.

Yet only 13% said they’ve ever spoken to their boss or coworkers about dealing with interruptions. (And only ⅓ of them said they found some sort of resolution.)

End of day

As RescueTime user Jordan Yarbrough told us:

“While there was general affirmation during the talk and afterward, without real buy-in from management it quickly deteriorated back to it’s previous state.”

How to manage interruptions at work

It’s clear that interruptions are creating havoc with our focused time. Yet, like any cultural and communication issue, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for them.

However, after hearing from our users and reading the advice of other professionals, we uncovered a few tactics for helping to ease the interruption epidemic.

Step 1: Awareness

Many people said that simply bringing up the issue of interruptions helped their coworkers be more mindful of how often they dropped by or sent them a message. That level of awareness helped them realize that there’s a real cost to interrupting someone.

Yet, having this conversation is never easy.

Most people like to bury their head in the sand when it comes to workplace issues like this and say “that’s just the way things are.” And to get through, it’s important to make the conversation about the workplace, not the person themselves.

As one survey respondent wrote:

“I always try to approach these conversations in a way that focuses on ‘I would like to share some ideas I’ve had recently in regards to enhancing/optimizing our current working relationship for better overall efficacy and efficiency’ rather than ‘Hey! you’re a completely disrespectful, inconsiderate douchebag when you interrupt me all the freaking time!’”

One way you can create more validity to your case is to use an Interruptor’s log. This is a basic spreadsheet that can help you track who, when, and what interrupts you.

Interruption Date and Time Description Valid? Urgent?

Once you have a week’s worth of interruptions logged, analyze them and see what’s sapping most of our time. Can you address these issues head on? Or do they require you to change some of your work habits?

Step 2: Schedule interruptions

Once there’s some visibility into just what interruptions are the most distracting, the next thing most people suggest is to create “interruption-free” times in the day. Without having some boundaries, it’s hard for others to respect your time.

As RescueTime User T.R. Duff told us:

“I schedule interactions when I know they will not be working. Like at lunch time or breaks, then I know that I can get what I need and it is already part of their workload.”

Here’s a few more suggestions of how to handle this from our users:

  1. Schedule dedicated time for more complex questions. If a conversation is going to take time to get through, it’s a good idea to schedule dedicated time. This way that person can prepare for it and make sure it works around their schedule.
  2. Decide on which non-urgent form of communication you’ll use. Not all interruptions are equal. And most people we spoke to said emails are easier to ignore than other forms. Find what form makes the most sense for your coworkers and use that when you need something.
  3. Ask if someone’s free before getting to what you need. It seems almost too easy, but simply asking if someone’s available before jumping into your ask can avoid most face-to-face interruptions.
  4. Have set “office hours”: If your job involves being available to others for questions, set aside dedicated time rather than being always around. This way people know when they can interrupt and you can schedule your day around those periods.

Step 3: Rethink the way you communicate (both in-person and online)

When it comes down to it, most interruptions are based around communication.

The problem is that we don’t talk about and set expectations around how we communicate and respond to each other. You probably think that if someone’s asking you a question, it’s got to be urgent. Yet people ask questions when they think about it, not because it’s a high priority.

Besides just segmenting time that’s available for interruption, it’s important to challenge the way your workplace thinks about communication. Do coworkers expect responses right away? Do you just default to the easiest form of communication (talking when you see that person)? Or do you have rules and expectations around when and how people should interact?

As RescueTime user Glenn Lockwood explains:

“At a high level, interruptions often increase as a result of increased project participation. So I tell my boss that I need to reduce my commitments and we sort priorities.”

These are questions you need to answer as a group and will depend on the nature of your job. But leaving them to “work themselves out” will inevitably be a productivity killer. As RescueTime user Matt Jones explains:

“I’ve never had a discussion that required a specific solution to a specific interruption problem. But when it’s come up in group meetings or one-on-ones my argument boils down to ‘you pay me to think, so why would you put me in an environment that makes that hard to do?'”

And this isn’t just for in-person communication, either. For digital interruptions like email and Slack, consider creating a tech policy of one—a set of rules or guidelines around how you use technology, how people should interact with you, and when and how you’ll respond to messages across different platforms.

To do our best work, we need to be able to focus. And that means protecting ourselves from constant interruptions. Yet, few workplaces really understand just how bad the interruption issue is.

And while most of us will never be able to work in total, focused isolation. We do need a little help telling others when it’s time to leave us alone.

What have you done to try to deal with interruptions at work? Let us know in the comments below or on Twitter.

Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.

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