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How to avoid the number one productivity killer...

Updated: Dec 17, 2020

GTD Steps: Engage

If you work in an office setting, you more than likely experience frequent interruptions during your work day­—your boss calls you for an update on a project, an issue suddenly crops up that requires your immediate attention, or a coworker stops by your desk to talk about last night’s game.

The time impact of interruptions

Studies have shown that people lose time when they switch from one task to another and that the amount of time lost increases with the complexity of the task. Not only do you lose the time you spend focusing on the interruption itself—even after you return to the task at hand, it takes time to become as focused as you were prior to the interruption. One study found that it can take as much as 23 minutes to get your mind back fully engaged in a complex task after being interrupted.

Here's an example of how interruptions impact your productivity. Let's say on a particular day you have 12 tasks to complete, each requiring about 30 minutes of time for a total of 6 hours of work. Now, let's say during each of those 12 tasks you are interrupted one time and that it takes you 3 minutes to get your mind back engaged after each interruption. Now, instead of it taking 6 hours to complete the work, it took you 6 hours and 36 minutes. If this scenario is representative of a typical day, finding a way to eliminate those interruptions will create an extra 36 minutes to get things done each and every day.

It's not reasonable to think that all interruptions can be avoided, and frankly, some interruptions will truly be more important than what you might be currently working on. But in my experience, the majority of interruptions are not so urgent they can't wait for a few minutes while you finish the task at hand.

Most people don't realize how frequently they get interrupted in a day. If you want an eye-opening experience, take a Post-it note and put it right next to your keyboard along with a pen. Every time someone interrupts you by stopping by your desk, messaging, or calling you, put a hash mark on the page.

In my earlier scenario, I assumed 12 interruptions during the day. However, that's just one every 40 minutes. Many people—perhaps you—get interrupted far more often than that and the resulting loss of productivity is far greater. This is particularly true if you consider "self-interruptions.”

Self interruptions

A "self-interruption" is when you switch your attention from what you are working on to something else on your own. For example, you might be in the middle of working on something and suddenly remember that you forgot to return a call from the day before. So, you switch your attention from what you are doing to make the call. Or, you might think of a task you need to do for another project, so you switch from what you are doing to the new task. Each time you switch your focus away from a task before it is completed, you will have to get your mind back into it again later which will increase the total time required to complete that task. It also leaves you with a string of partially completed tasks that clutter your mind.

How to minimize interruptions at work

Being aware of the significant drag on your productivity that interruptions can cause presents an opportunity to create more time by reducing the number of interruptions. Here are some strategies for reducing the number of interruptions throughout your day. While these may seem small, using them frequently can result in significant time savings, especially if you use them in combination.

Turn off e-mail alerts

For most of us, that little chime signaling a new e-mail has the same effect as the bell had on Pavlov's dog. We immediately glance down to see who its from, and more often than not we click to read the full e-mail. Let's assume for a moment that you receive an average of 40 e-mails per day and that 20 of them interrupt a task you are working on. If it takes you 2 minutes after each e-mail to get your mind reengaged in your original task, the cost of the interruptions will be 40 minutes per day.

To reduce email interruptions, you simply need to avoid checking your e-mail while in the middle of another task. A good way to do this is to turn off e-mail alerts. That way you won’t be tempted to switch your attention away from the task at hand when that little message box pops up.

Plan Your Day

When you have a Daily Plan and know exactly what you need to get done during a given day, you're much less likely to get pulled off course by interruptions.

Capture and Move On

Use your capture tool or to-do list to quickly capture items you don’t want to forget rather than switching your attention to them. Once you capture something, your mind will be able to let it go so you can refocus on the original task.

Complete Each Task in a Single Sprint

Start tasks when you have time to complete them—sometimes you have meetings or other events that you know are going to limit how much time you have to work on something. If you only have 30 minutes until your next meeting but choose to start working on a task that requires 60 minutes to complete you are setting yourself up to be interrupted.

Instead, try to choose tasks to work on based on the amount of time you have available. If you only have 30 minutes to work, choose a task you can complete in less than 30 minutes.


Once you become aware of the impact interruptions have on your productivity, you'll start noticing how often you get interrupted. Recognizing interruptions gives you the opportunity to figure out how to avoid or minimize them. And as you do, you'll notice how much more you are able to get done and how many fewer loose ends you have.

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