Managing Interruptions

It’s discouraging to put in a busy day only to realize that despite the time and effort you haven’t really accomplished much at all. Between email, IM, the phone, noise and quick questions it seems your time can easily be spent dealing and recovering from interruptions.
Interruptions tend to make your work day much longer than necessary.
I find that I am at my happiest and most productive when I am working in the “flow”, perhaps more commonly referred to as “in the zone” or “in the groove”. “Flow” is a mental state in which a person is fully immersed in the completion of an activity. It’s a state of deep concentration. It typically takes about 15 minutes of uninterrupted study to get into a state of “flow”, and the constant interruptions and distractions of a typical office environment will force you out of “flow” and make productivity difficult to achieve
When you work in a number of different environments like I do — home office, work, café, airport — it can add further to the challenge of avoiding interuptions. Here a number things I do to help avoid this productivity killer.
1) Turn off all notifications. Auditory and visual signals from IM, email, twitter clients and your mobile phone are all designed to grab your attention in order to inform. Turning this signal to silent or completely turning them off is perhaps the most obvious first step in creating an environment free from distraction. Some of my colleagues simply display a status of ‘busy’ but that is seldom enough, as people will contact you regardless of what your status message displays.
2) Set up office hours. We need to eventually respond to messages received so set-up specific times to reply, perhaps as part of your normal work cycle, or schedule a period where distractions are less of a liability. I work in 45-50 minute cycles and use that 5-10 minute off period to reply to IM, twitter or text messages. I respond to email in the morning, at lunch and prior to days end. I worked with an engineer who had a public policy of no interruptions in the morning. The mornings were his time to get things done, the afternoons were for communication. It worked well.
3) Face away from people. This isn’t as much a concern if you work in a home office or a cubicle farm, but if I am working in a public area, like a café, I find myself constantly being distracted by people and their gestures. If you love watching people like I do taking the simple step to position yourself facing away from people can do wonders. If it’s not possible to find a seat facing away from the movement of people I’ll start reading a book, something to revert my attention inwards and away from the environment around me.
4) Wear earplugs. I live and work in the noisiest place on earth. Music through headphones can sometimes work depending on the task I am trying to accomplish but if the music is good I start to focus more on the music than the work. Earplugs work best for me.
5) I avoid my office desk. Your desk phone, your colleague’s desk phone, the loud colleague who seems to shout when talking, the walk-bys asking for help, and on and on, all these compete for your attention. With iPads, netbooks and laptops there are few reasons to be glued to your desk. When I worked in a noisy office environment I got permission to escape to the library where I was far more productive. As long as I showed an increase in productivity it was of little concern to my supervisor where I got work done during certain times of the day. Find a quiet place to work free of distraction and watch your productivity soar.
It’s amazing what you can accomplish in a couple of hours when you eliminate interruptions thereby creating the right conditions for getting in the flow.
Some further reading:
Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience
Outliers: The Story of Success
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
Happiness and the Art of Innovation
Eight Components of Enjoyment
Goof off at work, read a book, ignore e-mail