Work, Interrupted

At the end of the day, do you ever feel like you’ve crossed off everything on your to-do list except the most important thing you’d set out to do?

If so, you’re not alone.

One of the reasons why many of us fail to accomplish our most challenging tasks is that we spend the majority of our day in reactive mode – putting out fires as they come up. In some cases these fires are interruptions that originate from our surrounding work environment whereas in others they are our own disruptive thoughts. It’s hardly our fault, as we’ve been hard-wired to respond to new and changing stimuli – after all our ancestors would have been eliminated from the gene pool had they been unable to make a fight-or-flight decision when faced with a new threat.

But today those threats don’t come in the form of predators looking to make us their next meal. Instead they come in the form of interruptions, like the alerts on our mobile devices or coworker chatter in our shared workspaces. And the toll they can take on our day is pretty astonishing. According to research by Gloria Mark, PhD, a professor in the Department of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine, knowledge workers are interrupted every 3 minutes on average (1). What’s worse is that it can take nearly a half-hour to refocus on the task at-hand. Although Mark’s research indicates that we can adapt to these interruptions by working faster, it comes at an incredible cost – more effort, more stress, and most notably for health care professionals, more error (2,3).

Knowledge workers are interrupted every 3 minutes on average.

Learning how to manage interruptions is challenging in part because they have become so ubiquitous that we often fail to recognize when they occur, let alone the negative impact they have on our work. To counteract this, one of the strategies I recommend in my productivity workshops is to set aside some time every few months or so and make an interruptions log, or a record of all the disruptions that derail you in a typical day. Just take a sheet of paper and draw a table with four columns to log (1) the date/time of each interruption, (2) a description of it, (3) its value to your work, and (4) an action plan for dealing with it. At the end of the day, take a few moments to analyze your data.

  • Date/Time. Do you notice any trends? Do the interruptions occur at certain times of the day or with certain work activities?
  • Description. What is the nature of each interruption? Where (or from whom) do they originate? 
  • Value. On a scale of 1-5 (or whatever scale makes the most sense for you), how valuable are the interruptions? Although most interruptions are probably worth very little, there are likely some that do warrant your attention. For example, if I get paged about an urgent patient-related issue, that’s worth my attention even if it’s disrupting my current workflow. On the other hand, being immediately notified when I get retweeted is not something that adds much value to my workday.
  • Action Plan. Once you’ve identified some of the interruptions in your day and assessed their value, what do you plan to do about them? Examples of action plans I’ve implemented in the past include turning off pop-up alerts for new emails and mobile push alerts for everything except text messages (or pages) and phone calls. You may also want to develop action plans for some of the more important interruptions in your day. For example, I implemented a system of “closed-door” and “open-door” office time so that I can spend part of the day focusing on challenging work and part of it being available for meeting with students or colleagues.

Interruptions at school or work aren’t going away any time soon. If anything, they’ve become increasingly more common as the volume and complexity of our work has grown. However, the value that we bring to our organizations is rarely measured by having an immediate response to all of the interruptions in our day. Putting out these fires may make it feel like we’ve gotten a lot done but it’s rarely the types of activities that move us forward on our most important long-term goals. In fact, for many of us it’s the work we were doing when we were interrupted that makes us an asset to our organizations. We probably can’t eliminate interruptions entirely, but identifying strategies for recognizing and managing them is a step in the right direction.



  1. González VM, Mark G. Constant, constant, multi-tasking craziness. Proc SIGCHI Conf Hum Factors Comput Syst 9781581137026. 2004 Apr 24;113.
  2. Mark G, Gudith D, Klocke U. The cost of interrupted work. Proceeding Twenty-Sixth Annu SIGCHI Conf Hum Factors Comput Syst. 2008 Apr 5;107.
  3. Westbrook JI, Woods A, Rob MI, Dunsmuir WTM, Day RO. Association of interruptions with an increased risk and severity of medication administration errors. Arch Intern Med. 2010 Apr 26;170(8):683–90.

Image credits: adapted from Library books by CCAC North Library (CC BY 2.0)