Save Four Hours of Your Workday by Managing Your Interruptions

The Cost of Interruptions

Interruptions waste an incredible amount of time!

Do you hear anyone complaining that they have too much time on their hands? Of course not. Everyone seems to have too much to do and not enough hours in the day to accomplish it — much less have time to relax.

The Incredible Cost of Interruptions

But recent research points to a solution: Stop letting yourself be interrupted so much! I’m simplifying the design here, but in a study by Bowman and her colleagues, college students read a five-page article online under two conditions: One group was interrupted five times by short instant messages (IMs) that they were supposed to answer; another group got the same IMs in advance and weren’t interrupted while reading the article.

The results on reading time were dramatic. The students who were not interrupted finished the article in 29 minutes; those who were interrupted by IMs took 46 minutes (and this doesn’t include the 3 minutes they spent reading and answering the IMs!). The two groups performed similarly on a test of recall afterwards.

What does this tell you? You can save lots of time by avoiding interruptions from emails, texts, IMs, phone calls, and what-not. It’s not just the time you spend dealing with the interruption; there’s an enormous cost involved in getting back into the train of thought you dropped when the interruption came. Being interrupted made the same reading task take 17 minutes longer. That’s more than 5 times as long as the time they spent dealing with the interruptions (reading and responding to the texts).

So let’s say you work in a job that expects you to complete eight hours of work a day. If it takes you 29 minutes to do something when you’re not interrupted vs. 46 minutes when you’re interrupted, you have saved yourself about 15 minutes every half hour, or 30 minutes an hour! At the end of an eight-hour day, you’ve saved four hours. Or, looked at another way, maybe you can do eight hours of work in eight hours, while your frequently-interrupted colleague will have to spend twelve hours to accomplish the same amount.

Well, of course, few of us focus on hard-thinking work in solid 8-hour blocks. We all need breaks to refresh our brains and regain our focus. But if we schedule those breaks so they occur after we’re finished with a task rather than taking mini-breaks whenever they happen, we can do the task much more quickly and take a much more satisfying, healthier, sustained break when we’re done.

Simple Time-Saving Advice

So, whether you’re a student or a professional or you just need to read and understand something, turn off your alerts when you need to concentrate. When you’ve finished that task, you can use the time you save to catch up with your contacts, do something fun and relaxing—or make it home for in time for dinner for a change!

Bowman, L. L., Levine, L. E., Waite, B. M., & Gendron, M. (2010). Can students really multitask? An experimental study of instant messaging while reading. Computers & Education, 54, 927-931.

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3 Responses to Save Four Hours of Your Workday by Managing Your Interruptions
  1. Martin
    January 2, 2013 | 11:14 pm

    A great article.

    I often equate IM, email, etc as equivalent to the “Got a minute?” visit to my office. The problem I have found with electronics is that we tend not to “shut the door” on them… The numbers quoted seem to verify the importance of controlling distraction and avoiding multitasking as much as possible.

    The big difference I find between electronic distraction and people coming to my office “for a minute” though, is that a face to face conversation to discuss an issue will usually be resolved in under a minute, whereas email conversations seem to go back and forth a lot which in total can easily take 10 times as long to come to the same resolution. Have you ever seen an email with the subject line Re:re:re:re:re:re:… I hope you get my point.

    If we then consider that time is spent (wasted?) not only in the issues associated with multitasking but also in inefficient conversations via email, IM, SMS, etc, is it not likely that as much as 75% of our day could be better utilised?

    I might add at this point that I am a huge advocate of technology. I just wonder sometimes if we use it very well.

    Regards,
    Martin

  2. Productivity Returned….. « considerwell
    January 29, 2013 | 5:32 pm

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