We all know interruptions in the workplace hurt productivity. The problem is, we know this in a very general way. Like how we know trans fats are bad for us, but if we’re honest, we don’t really know why.
We have a vague idea of what qualifies as an interruption, and we are even less clear on the interruption’s actual effect on someone’s job performance. And because this idea is not particularly tangible to most of us, we ignore it. Or worse, we write it off as being some touchy-feely thing a real business would never take seriously.
So in an effort to gain some clarity around how much workplace interruptions were costing me, I logged every interaction I experienced over the course of a somewhat normal work day. And it was ridiculous.
Here’s the minute-by-minute breakdown of my day:
- 8:15: Chat with developers and social team
- 8:30: Work on production schedule
- 8:40: Interrupted by co-worker A re blog question
- 8:43: Return to production scheduling
- 8:44: Interrupted by co-worker B re client homepage design instructions
- 8:46: Back to working on production schedule
- 8:48: Meet with project managers re production schedule
- 9:05: Breakout meeting re new blog project for Client K
- 9:14: Check email
- 9:15: Begin project A re client B homepage
- 9:20: Interrupted to answer questions re reporting
- 9:24: Begin project A re client J homepage
- 9:36: Interrupted to answer questions re reporting (again)
- 9:47: Begin project A re client B homepage (again)
- 10:01: Finish project A
- 10:08: Check and answer emails
- 10:19: Begin project B re my todo list
- 10:25: Phone call re room booking
- 10:28: Begin project B re my todo list (again)
- 10:30: Interrupted by phone call re room booking update
- 10:32: Begin project B re my todo list (again)
- 10:34: Interrupted re ethernet cable needs from co-worker F
- 10:35: Interrupted by phone call from client L
- 10:38: Begin project C re client V Kickoff meeting and finish by 10:52
- 10:55: Begin project D re email question response
- 11:00: Begin project E re client C’s content calendar
- 11:01: Interrupted re question from coworker T about new retainer starting
- 11:02: Begin project E re client C’s content calendar (again)
- 11:02: Tweet something about new blog post
- 11:02: Begin project E re client C’s content calendar (again)
- 11:06: Interrupted by coworker T to prepare for sales presentation
- 11:08: Begin project E re client C’s content calendar (again)
- 11:30: Interrupt re questions on traffic report and forms by co-worker B
- 11:36: Check email
- 11:38: Begin project E re client C’s content calendar (again)
- 11:45: Finish project E
- 11:45: Begin project F re sales presentation
- 11:54: Interrupted by phone call from client H
- 11:54: Begin project F re sales presentation (again)
- 12:20: Interrupted to answer questions re reporting
- 12:22: Begin project F re sales presentation (again)
- 12:26: Interrupt re question about client L audit edits
- 12:28: Begin project F re sales presentation (again)
- 12:33: Check Twitter
- 12:33: Begin project F re sales presentation (again)
- 12:41: Finish project F at (send to sales team)
- 12:42: Go back to project A, update time estimate based on co-worker D’s email
- 12:44: Update timesheet
- 12:45: Check email
- 12:46: Interrupted to answer questions re reporting
- 12:52: Finish updating timesheet at
- 12:54: Checking client analytics
- 12:57: Interrupted to answer questions re reporting
- 1:00: Lunch
- 2:00: Back from lunch
- 2:02: Check and answer emails
- 2:15: Start client C report
- 2:45: Finish client C report
- 2:47: Start client S report
- 2:52: Phone call at re project question
- 2:54: Start on client S report (again)
- 2:57: Interruption re paper size question
- 2:58: Start on client S report
- 3:15: Finish client S report
- 3:16: Quick questions from co-worker B on custom reports
- 3:18: Check email
- 3:20: Review client S homepage design
- 3:30: Interrupted by phone call from client C re form
- 3:36: Update timesheet
- 3:39: Review client S homepage design (again)
- 4:19: Finish client S homepage design review
- 4:21: Client C form review
- 4:37: Finish client C form review
- 4:45: Debrief with co-worker D re site visit
- 4:54: Check email and answer emails
- 5:00: Work on client S content calendar
- 5:11: Interruption re client L assets
- 5:14: Interruption re client S posts
- 5:15: Work on client S content calendar
- 5:27: Interrupt re client C’s form
- 5:40: Update production schedule
- 5:56: Update timesheet
- 6:00: Check email
- 6:05 Leave for day
For the record, yes, I’m completely aware that taking the time to log every interruption is of course an interruption itself. It was a necessary evil though.
Wait. What Was I Doing?
All in all, I experienced about 20 interruptions over the course of the day.* That doesn’t count all the times I interrupted myself to check email or check Twitter.
A study of digital distraction by the University of California, Irvine found that once interrupted it can take some 23 minutes for a worker to refocus on the original task.
In a separate study, psychologist Eyal Peer at Carnegie Mellon designed an experiment to measure the brain power lost when someone is interrupted. The study found that unexpected interruptions decreased participant test scores by 20%. That’s enough to turn a B-minus student (80 percent) into a failure (62 percent).
So interruptions not only delay getting back to the original task at hand by 23 minutes, but also decrease the proficiency by which we complete the tasks by 20%. That’s pretty powerful.
My Bad. This Door Doesn’t Go Here.
Unfortunately, in an office environment it is still somewhat hard to visualize the actual effects of interruptions. So instead, think of a car assembly plant. Visualize lines of unfinished cars moving down the assembly line, getting new parts attached at each station throughout the line. Think of the workers dropping in engines and attaching doors.
Now imagine stopping the assembly line for 23 minutes. No cars can move to the next station. Now imagine that once the line starts back up, everyone does their job 20% worse (attaching the wrong color door, missing a bolt here and a windshield there).
I mentioned earlier that talking about “how interruptions affect productivity” can be viewed as touchy-feely thing a “real business” would never take seriously. But if you use the car assembly plant example, I’ll tell you what, at a “real business,” people are getting fired for that shit.
*I recorded this day of distractions in 2014 before Slack was so prevalent. Now that I’m a Slack user, I would guess it at least doubles the daily interruptions.