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The Perils of Interruptions at Work

6th December 2014

When was the last time that you did something, start to finish, without being interrupted? In today’s fast-paced, connected and globalised world, we’re nearly always being distracted by the ping of an email, a phone call, or someone hovering nearby with a burning question. In addition to being incredibly irritating, interruptions are impacting our ability to work effectively and innovate.

Distractions and interruptions affect the brain’s capacity to internalise and apply knowledge, an essential skill in all knowledge economy professions. When intently reading, listening or interacting with something, information flows from our short-term, working memory to long-term memory. Interruptions or distractions disrupt this flow of information, leaving us unable to process or store it as knowledge. Over time, frequent interruptions can result in poor memory recall and lower ability to comprehend while reading.

Research has also shown that distractions or interruptions lead to significantly higher levels of frustration and feelings of pressure. Being interrupted tends to make us paranoid that we’re falling behind, resulting in attempts to work faster and higher levels of stress. Deep concentration, on the other hand, has distinct health benefits. The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has written about the state of ‘flow,’ reached when ‘a person must concentrate attention on the task at hand and momentarily forget everything else.’ Achieving this state, Csikszentmihalyi contends, is imperative to realising true fulfilment.

Furthermore, our capacity to innovate and be creative relies on an ability to absorb and reflect on knowledge. More interruptions and higher levels of stress leave less time for quiet reflection and contemplation. When distracted and unfocused we’re unable to consider what new products or services would meet customers’ need; what processes could be improved; or in what direction our companies should be heading.

Companies can better design their processes and workplaces to help us concentrate better in the face of an onslaught of interruptions. Expectations that emails don’t have to be answered instantly and the use of presence indicators can go a long way. In the near future, wearable technologies will monitor our levels of concentration and filter out all but the most important notifications. In the meantime, establishing quiet zones in offices, where the use of phones is prohibited, can make work which requires deep concentration more productive.

This post was written by Owen King, Unwork’s Workplace Consultant. 

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