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Causes of Overwork: Unnecessary Interruptions

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The economy may be slowly rebounding, but that’s no reason to be exhausted. Here’s part two of The Causes of Overwork.

Last time, we covered unreasonable expectations that slow workplace productivity. That was number one on the list of workplace issues that lead to frustration, exhaustion and collapse:

  1. Unreasonable expectations – You are asked to do things which are just not possible.
  2. Unnecessary interruptions – You are being bugged by people for things that just aren’t worth breaking your concentration.
  3. Inadequate skill – you don’t have the training or ability to do assigned tasks.

Number two, “unnecessary interruptions” may be the source of most explosive outbursts at the office. You are bearing down on a deadline, racing to finish a critical task before heading to the next meeting or going to pick up the kids, and someone comes into taps you on the shoulder just to say hello. At times like these, you may be wondering what a jury would say given the circumstances. Shouldn’t you have the chance to do professional work without being bothered?

It might seem like interruptions are just a part of life. Although annoying, do a few minutes of banter here and there really add up to something that would cause overwork? You probably know the answer from personal experience: yes, absolutely!

We’ve written about workplace interruptions many times before. This chart, adapted from work done by researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, help explains why interruptions are so destructive to workflow:

employee productivity chart

As we move up and to the right on the diagram, we need more and more concentration. Interruption forces us to move rapidly from one side to the other, According to multiple studies, it can take as long as thirty minutes to recover! A few brief interjections, random noises or loud conversations can destroy an entire workday.

That’s not to say that all interruptions are bad. Sometimes, the office really is on fire. Some of us do work in environments where minutes or even seconds count. Thankfully, emergency services personnel can be interrupted to save lives, even if they are on a break. But for most of us, most of the time, interruptions are simply unnecessary.

To change the culture in your office, use a two-fold strategy:

1. Train Others By Modeling Good Interruption Behavior

If the phone rings and you know you don’t have time to answer it, let it go to voicemail! In fact, you can even reply to the caller with a quick email message:

To: Bob Smith
Subject: Your phone call at 2:45PM, 15-Feb
Bob — I saw your name on the caller ID, but I’m in the middle of a huge project on a major deadline. If your need is urgent, feel free to ring me again and I’ll pick up. Otherwise, do you want to email me your request or schedule time for a meeting later this week? Thanks! -Frances

If a coworkers want you join in an interruption, resist. Consider this script:

Marcus: Hey, let’s see if Sally wants to grab a cup of coffee.
You: It looks like she’s really busy with that report. Why don’t we bring her a cup instead?

Finally, if you must jump in and mess with someone else’s workflow, apologize:

You: Lou, I am sorry to interrupt you. I know what you are working on is important, but the client is about to go into a major meeting and has a question only you can answer. Will you pick up line three?

2. Push Back on Interruptions by Over Engaging

If people interrupt you, the temptation is to just begrudge and accept it. This doesn’t work, because you only train them believe that interruptions are acceptable. Another technique is to firmly let them them know that you are busy. But this can be intimidating and hurtful to others. So instead, try over engaging:

Bobbi: Hey there, ready for weekend?
You: You know, actually I am excited. I’ve got big plans to clean the bathroom with this new, eco-friendly cleaner I got from my aunt Flo. I know that sounds crazy, but she swears by it. You wanna go to the break room and have a snack? I’ll tell you all about it.
Bobbi: Uh…actually, I gotta wrap up some emails.
You: No problem.

It might feel a little odd to over-engage at first, but by doing so you are actually training other people to know that interruptions mean serious business. And if they do want to go have that conversation about your housecleaning project, you can use the rapport to explain the issue:

Bobbi: Fascinating. I look forward to hearing about how the cleaning project goes!
You: Thanks. You know I appreciate the break, but maybe we should put this on our calendars in the future! Same time next Friday work for you?

Unnecessary interruptions lead to overwork, not just because of lost time but lost concentration. Model smarter behavior and train your colleagues to be smarter with their use of time. Learn more by contacting our business process transformation consultants today!

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Robby Slaughter
Robby Slaughter is a workflow and productivity expert. He is a nationally known speaker on topics related to personal productivity, corporate efficiency and employee engagement. Robby is the founder of AccelaWork, a company which provides speakers and consultants to a wide variety of organizations, including Fortune 500 companies, regional non-profits, small businesses and individual entrepreneurs. Robby has written numerous articles for national magazines and has over one hundred published pieces. He is also the author of several books, including Failure: The Secret to Success. He has also been interviewed by international news outlets including the Wall Street Journal. Robby’s newest book is The Battle For Your Email Inbox.
Robby Slaughter


Troublemaker and productivity/workflow expert. Slightly more complex than 140 characters will permit.
@lorraineball First probably depends on the business. But second is likely training, especially with regard to sales. - 3 days ago
Robby Slaughter
Robby Slaughter

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