Surviving the Interruption Culture

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by Edward G. Brown

People feel free to interrupt others with innocent-sounding questions like, “Got a minute?” And the interrupted think they have to be polite and say, “Sure, how can I help?” – even when they are desperate to meet a deadline. They let the “Time Bandit” steal their time because they have been acculturated to believe they must. 

And despite the desperation we feel, the interruption culture persists for a very good reason: we like it. We perpetuate it. We love our smart phones, our routers, our search engines, our unfettered access and exposure to everybody and everything. We demand to be immediately informed, via alerts on our stash of devices, what’s happening with the weather, traffic, stock market, politics, crime, sports, celebrities, our favorite Twitter feeds, and our Facebook friends. Who can wait for the evening news or the morning paper when a story might be going viral? 

So, if you really want to diminish interruptions and distractions at work, there’s a trade-off. You have to push back on the interruption culture that satisfies so many of your urges but interferes with getting your work done. 

1. Motivate yourself to combat distractions

As long as you tend to think that distractions are innocuous, short-lived, and rare, you are not going to change. Why should you? But if you sit down with an “interruptions checklist” for a couple of days, and record how much time you really lose to those distractions, you’re going to be shocked – and motivated to change. When calculating, think not only of the time it takes to deal with the interruption, but also the time it takes to say to yourself, “Now where was I?” Momentum losses are also big time losses, particularly if the interruption caused you to make a mistake or two when returning to your work. 

And naturally all of that causes distress, which causes fatigue and wastes even more time.

In all the years I’ve been consulting on this subject my corporate students invariably come up with three to five hours a day of wasted time. Not per week – each day!

2. Deter any interruptions

Okay, now you’re motivated because you’re aware of the potential loss. The next time you’re hard at work and somebody interrupts your concentration with “Got a minute?” here’s the second hack: Politely deter your interrupter (or what I call your “Time Bandit”) in a way that makes it in his or her best interest to let you work uninterrupted now, so that you can give them your full, undivided attention later. Also realize that, like you, this Time Bandit probably has his Time Bandits he would like learn how to deter as well.

For example, you can say to your colleague: “I would love to lend you a hand on that project. However, I’m wrapping up a report on deadline and I need to give it my full concentration, but I’ll be finished by mid-afternoon. Then I can come by your office and give your question my undivided attention. Will that work for you? As a matter of fact maybe we can work out an arrangement where we can cover for each other while we ‘Time Lock’ to get our most critical projects done undisturbed?”

Remember, you are trying to accomplish two things: protect your time and be a great team player.

3. Try not to distract yourself

You’ve sent your Time Bandit away happy, and now you get to work uninterrupted on that report. Now what distracts you? You do! That’s right. We are all our own worst Time Bandits. So the third hack is: Learn techniques for riveting your wandering mind, or what I call “Mental Leakage.”

Here are a few that I teach – choose what works for you:

Transcending the environment – Transcending the environment means rising above physical issues. The room is too hot or too cold. Your chair is all wrong. The construction next door is noisy. You are not a thermometer, obligated to rise when it’s hot and drop when it’s cold. You are not a receiver, obligated to listen to every sound. And if you do permit yourself to think about the physical issues, you just suffer even more. 

Visualizing the ideal self – Another way to recapture your wandering mind is to visualize yourself as a winner in a given situation. Think about the client complimenting your boss on the high-quality report. Or going home that night without worrying about this project because it’s finally behind you! That lets you better accept the given realities that currently distract you. You may be tired and prefer to call it a day, but visualizing those positive outcomes re-energizes you. 

Psychological counterpunching – When a counterproductive thought threatens your focus (“I should check my emails”), you throw up a mental counterpunch: “I’ll be so disappointed later if the boss starts calling to ask where my report is.” And then you immediately follow it with your own best punch: “Remember how great it feels to hit send on a high-quality deliverable!” 

4. Know your “Critical Few”

Given that you will probably always have more to do than there is time for, you need to learn how to choose what you will spend time on. That means carving out what I call your “Critical Few” from your “Minor Many.”

Your Critical Few are those activities which, if you neglect them, will have dire consequences for your work, your job, or your personal life. Your Minor Many are not necessarily insignificant, but they can wait, and their neglect might be disappointing but not dire.

Remember that 20 percent of your tasks will give you 80 percent of the benefits. Therefore, carefully choosing your Critical Few and working them in an undisturbed fashion will not only save time but provide greater productivity and efficiency.

5. Create a whole-week plan

Now that you’ve recovered and protected time that your Time Bandits would otherwise have stolen, you’ve stemmed your Mental Leakage, and you’re focused on your Critical Few, how do you maintain those gains, and not give them up when old habits try to reassert themselves? You do it by creating a weekly plan for how you will allocate your time. Yes, your time.

A weekly plan gives you a structure for leveraging your “surplus” time by planning a whole week in advance. The process of committing your plan to paper embeds your plan into your consciousness. Writing it down creates thinking and spurs creativity and execution.

And, best of all, it is a reliable tool when distractions come up and you’re tempted to backslide.

Edward G. Brown is the author of “The Time Bandit Solution: Recovering Stolen Time You Never Knew You Had” and cofounder of the culture change management consulting and training for the financial services industry, Cohen Brown Management Group. For more information, please visit and and connect with Mr. Brown on Twitter @EdwardGBrown.

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