When you work with intention behind what you're doing, interruptions are usually only good for throwing you off whatever important thing you're working on. Most of the time getting interrupted will make you less productive.
Except when they don't. While getting interrupted is almost always a pain in the ass, strange as it might sound, often interruptions make you more productive.
Interruptions are productive
Over the last several months, I've been poring through an ungodly amount of research about how we focus, and what happens when our focus gets derailed. I've discovered, in the process, that there are two cases where interruptions are a lot more productive than they appear on the surface:
- When they're related to what we're currently working on;
- When they help others get unstuck.
First, interruptions are often productive when they're related to what we're currently working on. When we're hunkered down on a task, and get interrupted, it can take us as long as 26 minutes to get back on track. But this is only the case when the interruption is unrelated to the project we're currently working on. When the interruption has to do with what we're working on in that moment, it can save us time. Someone might be interrupting us to let us know about something they discovered that might help us out, or might be providing us with information we can use to save time ourselves. And even if the interruption doesn't help us directly, since we don't have to switch mental contexts to tend to it, we're able to get back on track almost immediately. We don't have to switch back and forth.
Interruptions are also often productive because, even though they're a pain for us, they lead our colleagues to get significantly more done. Interruptions are a necessary evil of doing collaborative work. The work we do doesn't exist in a vacuum; we're part of an ecosystem of people that are working toward a common goal. While getting interrupted derails our personal productivity, necessary interruptions still move the overall project forward, because we're able to give someone else the information they need to do a good job. And, in turn, being able to interrupt other people lets us move our own tasks forward when we need to get information from other people.
Interruptions can be costly
All that said, interruptions are usually more costly than they are helpful. The average person works on ten projects at one time"”given this, the odds that an interruption relates to what you're working hovers around 10%.2 And when we do knowledge work for a living, our productivity is usually the result of how long we can focus on just one thing for.
But the opposite is the case if you're working on a project that's hypercollaborative, or if the interruptions you do receive are related to the project you're currently working on (perhaps because your coworkers are working to deliver the same thing).
While getting interrupted usually makes you less productive, in practice, reality is a bit more nuanced. Interruptions are usually a pain"”but in some cases they're more productive than they feel.
A question worth asking: do a lot of your interruptions come from a common source? If they do, they might be worth automating. For example, if you lead a team of software programmers that gets interrupted frequently for feature requests and questions about the product, it may be worth developing software for those outside your time to request features, or hiring an intern to write some documentation.