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Nov 7 2007   10:32AM GMT

Driven to distraction by drive-by interruptions

Ivy Wigmore Ivy Wigmore Profile: Ivy Wigmore

Does the following sound familiar? You’re at your desk, opening email, preparing for a good solid work day. As you’re responding to one message, however, that little alert pops up on the bottom of the screen and before you know it you’ve got a bunch of open emails clamoring for your attention. And then comes the IM, which, being real time (as opposed to the several seconds elapsing between messages in an email exchange) trumps email. At the height of this madness, I’ve occasionally been exchanging email and IMing with someone simultaneously when interrupted by the phone. Guess who?

Whatever your job, if you do it at a computer you’re probably coming to terms with spending a fair amount of your day doing things that didn’t come up in your job description. (Hands up, anyone who saw “Writing and responding to email” at the top of the required tasks list?)

Ok, no surprise that email is eating our lives (not sure I even want to see the numbers on that) but did you know that you probably spend more time being interrupted from tasks than you do working on them?

This article looks at drive by interruptions and the toll they exact on productivity.

Here are a few stats:

  • Interruptions crunch through 28% of the average knowledge worker’s day.
  • Interruptions typically lower a worker’s IQ 10 points. (The researchers note that’s over twice as big a drop as experienced by someone who smoked marijuana. Man.)
  • In a study of Microsoft employees, it took workers an average of 15 minutes to settle into a task again after an interruption.

If, like me, you telecommute you may not have the “drop-by drive-by” coworker sitting on the edge of your desk. On the other hand, family and neighbors (many, many of whom just never seem to get the “work” part of “work from home”) will typically take time out of their busy days to fill that niche.

When a friend of mine was working on his doctoral dissertation, he actually locked his door and tied himself into the chair at his computer with the belt from his bathrobe so that he couldn’t absent-mindedly wander away.

Ingenious, but it would never work today. We’re virtually strapped in at our computers but the potential for interruption just seems to get worse. Without so much as standing up, we’ve got email, IMs, RSS notifications… not to mention the siren call of the Net or even the archaic charms of the telephone.

So how to cope, get some work done and maybe even save your sanity? Well, here’s a hint: “Unplug” is number three on Lifehack’s top 50 ways to increase your productivity list. On rare occasions, I’ve closed out of Outlook and exited IM. It’s amazing how much you can get done without interr… oh, hold that thought — I’ve got to take this call…

~ Ivy Wigmore

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