Stop Interruptions

I turned off my internet while working on the book. Not surfing the web afforded me so much time.
Saira Rao in Authors@Google

Creative work demands concentration — and concentration is a scarce resource in today’s highly-connected world. People are frequently interrupted — and they interrupt themselves. But there is an easy — and also hard — solution: disconnect.

Disconnect the Ethernet cable, turn off the Wi-Fi card, turn off your cellphone, mute the landline, and close the door.

Impossible? For heaven’s sake, why?

Why do people desperately try to be available 24/7? Are they that important? That highly in demand? Are they that scared to miss something — anything? A cellphone has voice mail, eMails don’t expire over the course of a day, people who find the door closed will come again or send a message.
And ask yourself: Do you really need to get the information exactly in that moment?

I can understand that one wants to be available in case a family member is born or dies, but is that a realistic reason for being always available? Or shouldn’t you make sure that there are times and places where you can work undisturbed?

It’s easy with cellphones, you just switch them off. If you dare. Even in the university library, where students go to work in peace, most students have their cellphone on the table and quickly run outside whenever they receive a call. Some simply switch their cellphone off. I’m willing to bet that the later ones are more productive.

Switching off the network (if you do not need it to work) is also hard, but worthwhile. I did some long stretches of highly demanding work in the university library because I could not go online there. As a consequence I could not interrupt my work to “quickly check my mail” or “visit that interesting website”. I can highly recommend doing something similar, especially when you know that you do not have the discipline to abstain from going online when you (technically) can. It is much easier to change infrastructure or the setting than to fight constantly against desire to use the distractions it offers.

People, especially co-workers, are harder to switch off. While working on my dissertation I was assigned to an open-plan office. I couldn’t mute my co-workers, but there were other solutions: Wearing headphones with loud music, going to the university library, or working at night when the office was empty. No co-workers means no distractions, which means full concentration on the issue I was working on.
(BTW, putting PhD students in an open-plan office is a really, really bad idea!)
Now I have my own office and if I want to work in peace, I close the door. Given the in-house policy of

  • open door: come in anytime
  • nearly closed door: come in if it’s important
  • closed door: don’t come in unless the building burns

I can reasonably work in peace for the long stretches of time that my work demands. In almost every case it makes no difference that I get an information a few hours later. I make sure that I double-check my appointments to remember them and in most cases, people will find me if something really important happens. I also make sure to answer all mails within 24 hours, but at a time when I am finished concentrating on something important.

Refraining from going online in Skype also gives a boost to time and concentration. Nothing costs more attention and destroys concentration more quickly than a message popping up by someone wanting to talk. It’s like having a huge sign on the door: “Come in and interrupt me”, only that the whole world can see it. I can understand that it is nice to chat (I did like it myself), but I think a good social network (consisting of real friends and not virtual ones) does not need Instant Message Services. If you have a chat scheduled, turn it on immediately before the appointment, otherwise don’t even start the program.

In short, make sure you can work in peace for long stretches of time when you need it. Not only do these interruptions cost you your concentration when you are working on an important project, they also prevent you from starting working on the project. Why would someone start to work on something when she knows that she will be interrupted over and over again and will not be able to finish it? You’ll only waste your time doing something different instead of that very important piece of work that you don’t think you can do when you can be interrupted. But you can, if you create your own defenses in your infrastructure to prevent others (and yourself) from interrupting.

Happy uninterrupted working 🙂

Categories: Improving your Creativity, Infrastructure


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