Have a break, but avoid interruptions, be more productivePosted on June 16th, 2011 –
“Interruption is the enemy of productivity” as stated in the book Rework by the 37signals founders Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson. But working for hours without interruption is also very bad for high productivity, as described by Tony Schwartz in his book Be Excellent at Anything. So, this sounds like a contradiction, right?
However, it makes totally sense, if we define an interruption as an unwilling interruption of the work in progress due to an external influence such as an incoming phone call, incoming emails, your working colleague asking a question, or your boss requesting an update. They all are productivity killers. On the other hand, we define a break as an intended interruption of work after a certain amount of time (best is after 90 minutes) in order to recharge your batteries with food, drink, breathing, and/or relaxation. Interruptions are poison, regular breaks are the fuel for more productivity.
Why are interruptions bad for personal productivity? Because it takes time to focus your mind on a certain task. For example writing a business plan, or financial forecast, or to code something takes a lot of brain power and complex thinking, seeing the whole picture. You need to think of everything and be creative and efficient at the same time. At the moment of an interruption, your brain is interrupted in its creative process and has to change focus (often to something very different). Then after the interruption, it takes time to get focussed on the “real” work again. The brain has no time to “think” about the given task. It always has to change from one topic to the other. This is not only bad for productivity and creativity, it is also very tiring and doesn’t lead anywhere. Therefore, avoid interruptions.
Why are breaks good for personal productivity? As perfectly described by Tony Schwartz in his blog post,
As every great athlete understands, the highest performance occurs when we balance work and effort with rest and renewal. The human body is hard-wired to pulse, and requires renewal at regular intervals not just physically, but also mentally and emotionally.
This said, Schwartz proposes regular breaks after 90 minutes of intensive and focussed work.
What to do during a break? Take five to ten minutes for active relaxation while breathing consciously. Don’t use your break for checking emails (productivity killer #1).
Everybody can control regular constructive breaks, just set a timer at 90 minutes. That’s basically it. The question, however, is how to avoid interruptions?! This is more complicated as we cannot control interruptions directly, they just happen. However, they can be avoided resulting in fewer interruptions. There are several approaches to avoid interruptions.
- Redirect phone calls to a voice mail box during the hours you want to be productive. Then you check the voice mail box twice per day, for example at 11AM and at 4PM and call back the urgent calls, or follow up via email the less urgent ones. If the caller doesn’t leave a voice mail it was most probably not important.
- Check emails only two or three times a day. Can be combined with the voice mail consultation. Answer emails directly, which take less than two minutes to answer. The other emails you can either delegate or create a todo item or even a project if there are multiple todo items related to it.
- Set fix quiet times during which you plan not to be interrupted. This means that during the quiet times, you are switching off your phone, or redirect it to the voice mail, you quit the email client, and tell your colleagues to only interrupt you if it is really important, meaning that they would also wake you up at 1AM for the same reason. This sounds nice in theory, but is more difficult to realize in practice. It is not always possible to tell your boss not to interrupt you. Managers often think they can interrupt at any time because they think that their things are much more important and urgent than your stuff. However, in most of the cases this is not the case. So try to speak with your boss and explain the concept. If that doesn’t work, try working at home (if possible).
- Start wearing head phones during your work. This indicates that you are listening to some music even if you are not. As a consequence, people will think that you don’t hear them and wont interrupt. However, this doesn’t always work.