Go away — why we should get rid of interruption-driven work

10:30 am.

I’ve barely come to the office when the first colleague approaches my desk.

It doesn’t really matter what he or she wants from me, weither he want to chatter or drop-off a task for me to complete. It’s more about a pattern that I became aware of through my work life and that is nagging me: all to often we interrupt people while working and get interrupted by other people.

For me this topic is an affair of the heart.

Because, you know, I’m the kind of guy, who is easy to distract.

By that I mean that certain stimuli from the environment can literally drive me mad and let me forget what I was into just a moment ago. For my surroundings my reactions to that are often not really comprehensible. Because, while they might feel disturbed by the neighbour hammering to become the next Tim “the toolman” Taylor, my reaction to that might seem a bit over the top to them — just as much as me murmuring “Could you talk about this somewhere else” to some chattering co-workers might come along a bit to harsh.

It can be suprising. Especially, since I am always up for a nice chin wag myself.

The thing is: while my reactions might be over the top, it’s not just me who has a problem with interruptions. Even other people can lose their focus and motivation in confrontation of interruptions. And it drives stress, especially when it happens too often, since the entirely justified desire to have a productive and satisfying day might move into the far distance with every additional interruption.

Heck, there are even scientists concerned with the topic.

For example there is a (german) study called “Effects of work interruptions and multitasking on productivity and health”, which has been published by the German Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, to research the impact of interruptions on health an productivity and they came to the conclusion, that work interruptions and situations of multi tasking are stressy for all classes of age and come with toll for health.

The study were focused on people working in health care and so the question is legitimate, weither this evidence is applicable to other occupational groups. In general, though, the theories of the underlying research in the field of the so-called Interruption science is sound: when confronted with work interruptions there happens a conflict of goals in our working memory and that is most likely causing performance penalities.

Of course, I am saying to myself.

From a strictly anecdotic and thus not very scientific point of view I can confirm that this is plausible. How often did I forgot about import details of a task when being interrupted — or even what I was about to do.

Back then, when I first became aware of that reoccuring pattern and it’s problems, I’ve been obliged to do time tracking for the work I did for customers. And so I realized that things get even worse if the interruptions happen while we work for customers “against” the time. At least if we feel a need act responsible with the customers resources.

And let’s be honest with ourselves.

We know that there is always more work to do as time is available, so ultimately the question might be: is that feeling of burn out in fact an illness in the sense of an ICD diagnosis — or is it just me having a problem to cope with my life affairs?


The first thing to do is breeze and realize that we happen to be on both ends of the problem: as the one being interrupted and the other part interrupting other people.

Then it’s helpful to realize that work doesn’t always have to be finished right here and now. That the world is not going to stop existing, if something may happen to remain unfinished. And yes — it even applies, when you are in fact the person who wants the work to happen.

And from that perspective we can start ask questions to ourselves, whenever we have a request to another person.

Like: is it really that urgent, that I have to pick up the phone or work to the desk of the other person?

Additionally we can try to watch out for subtle signals that the approached person might not be up for a conversation just right now. This could be signs like headphones plugged into the ear, a closed and otherwise open door or maybe just frenetic typing on the keyboard.

Coming back at a later time.

And yes — in some (rare) cases an “Eww, go away” can be justified.

But then remember to show the other people that yo care about their requests and approach that colleague at a later time, asking weither his or her request is still valid and what it was about. And of course it might make sense to use less synchronous communcation media for that, like Slack, E-Mail or whatever instant messenger you use. To not walk into the trap of being the disruptor yourself.

In the endpatient people can get their work done, too.

Even if it somtimes happens tomorrow.

This blog post has originally been published in German in my blog www.chaosverbesserer.de.

Trying to improve the chaos called work - one article at a time. Blogging on Medium and on my blog chaosverbesserer.de.

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