Why is it important to control interruptions?

In today’s fast-paced, technology-driven world, we are constantly bombarded with interruptions. Emails, phone calls, instant messages, and alerts on our smartphones keep us in a near-constant state of distraction. While some interruptions are inevitable, and occasionally even useful, an overload of interruptions can significantly reduce our productivity, increase stress levels, and negatively impact our ability to focus and think deeply. Learning to control and manage interruptions is therefore a critical skill for maintaining productivity and sanity in the modern workplace.

What are interruptions and why do they matter?

An interruption is anything that breaks our focus and pulls our attention away from the task at hand. Common workplace interruptions include:

  • Incoming emails, instant messages, or chat app notifications
  • Phone calls
  • Colleagues stopping by your desk to chat or ask a question
  • Alerts and notifications from smartphone apps
  • Meetings
  • Background noise and distractions in the environment

Interruptions disrupt our workflow and train of thought. Even brief interruptions of just a few seconds can greatly increase the time required to complete a task, double the number of errors made, and significantly increase mental fatigue. This is because each time we are interrupted, our brains must exert extra effort to re-focus, re-orient to the task, recall where we left off, and regain lost momentum. An estimated 2.1 hours per day are lost solely due to the time it takes to recover from interruptions and get back on track.

Beyond reduced productivity, frequent interruptions negatively impact:

  • Ability to think deeply and creatively
  • Concentration and memory
  • Ability to make good decisions
  • Stress levels
  • Job satisfaction
  • Quality of work and output

In many knowledge work jobs, the ability to focus for long periods on cognitively-demanding tasks is essential for success. Controlling interruptions is therefore a key strategy for boosting productivity and job performance.

Costs of excessive interruptions in the workplace

Uncontrolled interruptions in the workplace exact significant costs, both for individuals and for organizations as a whole. For individuals, excessive interruptions result in:

  • Lower productivity and less work completed
  • More errors and mistakes
  • Greater difficulty prioritizing important work
  • Reduced ability to think creatively or strategically
  • Increased fatigue, burnout, and frustration

For organizations, uncontrolled interruptions lead to:

  • Lower employee productivity and performance
  • Poorer quality work and more errors
  • Longer timelines for projects and key initiatives
  • Reduced innovation and strategic thinking
  • Higher employee burnout and turnover

Studies estimate that unnecessary interruptions cost the US economy close to $588 billion per year in lost productivity. For knowledge workers in particular, a workplace filled with constant disruptions can result in up to a 40% loss in productive time.

Key sources of interruption overload

While some interruptions are inevitable, many are unnecessary and avoidable. The three biggest sources of interruption overload in most workplaces include:


Email has become a massive source of disruption. Surveys show office workers spend 2.6 hours per day on email on average. The constant alerts and notifications pull attention away from more focused work. Just having email visible diminishes productivity.

Instant messaging/communications apps

Tools like Slack, Microsoft Teams, and WhatsApp offer the convenience of quick communication. However, the pings of constant notifications easily sidetrack employees. Workers can lose up to 20 minutes getting back on track after just a single IM or chat app interruption.

Open office environments

While open office designs improve collaboration, the lack of sound insulation and barriers allows noise, conversations, and other disturbances to easily interrupt workers. Open office workers average 62% more interruptions than those in private offices or cubicles.

Negative impacts of excessive interruptions

Too many interruptions at work cause a wide range of negative consequences:

1. Lower productivity and task completion

– Frequent interruptions break concentration, resulting in slower work with more errors
– Significantly increases the time required to complete tasks
– Employees get less work done each day

2. Poorer thinking and decision making

– Interruptions inhibit deep thinking and creative thought
– Makes it harder for people to make good decisions
– Can lead to rushed, careless, or poor choices

3. Greater stress and frustration

– Constant interruptions are mentally fatiguing
– Cause frustration, impatience, and anxiety
– Contribute to feelings of burnout and being overwhelmed

4. Poor communication and collaboration

– Makes it harder to communicate complex or nuanced information
– Fragmented communication flows reduce meeting and discussion productivity
– Impedes collaborative workflows

5. More mistakes and errors

– Each interruption increases odds of missteps and mistakes
– Makes it easier to lose track of details or skip steps
– Errors require re-work and waste time

Key strategies for controlling interruptions

While we cannot eliminate interruptions entirely, we can reduce unnecessary disruptions using various strategies:

1. Set office hours or no interruption blocks

– Block out set “deep work” hours when you are not available for meetings etc.
– Post office hours on calendar or status indicator when you need uninterrupted focus time

2. Manage email effectively

– Turn off audible email and IM notifications
– Set specific times to batch process email, don’t leave it open all day
– Unsubscribe from unnecessary lists and communications

3. Communicate your preferences

– Politely inform coworkers when you need undisturbed focus time and cannot be interrupted
– Post a “do not disturb” sign on your office door when appropriate

4. Wear noise cancelling headphones

– Wearing headphones is a clear signal to coworkers that you are trying to focus
– Also helps block out ambient noise that can be distracting

5. Take breaks away from the desk

– Short breaks help recharge mental focus and energy
– Stepping away from the desk also sidesteps desk-drive-by interruptions

6. Hold standing or walking meetings

– Avoid sitting down meetings which remove you from your workspace and disrupt flow
– Standing or walking meetings impose a natural time limit

7. Set devices to airplane mode

– Block smartphone notifications and background app distractions by enabling airplane mode
– Disabling wifi and data signals eliminates a major interruption source

8. Try distraction-free writing apps

– Apps like FocusWriter or WriteRoom provide a full-screen, distraction-free writing space
– Eliminates distracting interface elements and notifications

9. Get buy-in from leadership

– Cultivating focus friendly workplace habits requires support from management
– Leaders should actively discourage unnecessary interruptions of focused work

Benefits of controlling interruptions

While it takes effort and discipline, organizations and employees gain significant benefits by minimizing unnecessary disruptions, including:

For Individuals:

– Increased productivity and work output
– Ability to focus for longer periods of time
– Less mental fatigue and greater job satisfaction
– Higher quality thinking and creativity
– Improved decision making abilities
– More energy and greater sense of control

For Organizations:

– Higher employee productivity and performance
– Faster completion of projects and initiatives
– Greater innovation and strategic thinking
– Increased revenue and profitability
– More engaged and satisfied workforce
– Reduced costs from mistakes and errors
– Better ability to attract and retain top talent

Best practices for reducing interruptions

Organizations looking to create a more focused work environment should implement these best practices:

For Employees:

– Set designated “deep work” time blocks on your calendar
– Turn off audible notifications on devices and apps
– Politely communicate your focus needs to coworkers
– Take regular breaks to recharge mental focus
– Batch process lower-priority communications like email

For Leaders/Managers:

– Encourage focus friendly habits in your team
– Discourage unnecessary meetings and interruptions
– Allow flexible “work from home” time for focused work
– Lead by example by avoiding interrupting employees unnecessarily
– Provide private offices or quiet workspaces for focused work

For Organizations:

– Offer focus-friendly workspace options like private offices and quiet zones
– Discourage a culture of constant urgency and interruption
– Train employees on strategies to effectively manage interruptions
– Implement digital tools to reduce unnecessary emails and messages
– Conduct workshops on deep work, focus, and concentration

Frequently Asked Questions

Why are interruptions so disruptive to productivity?

Interruptions are disruptive because they force the brain to break focus, lose its train of thought, and expend extra effort to reorient to the task at hand. This refocusing process significantly slows down work and increases mental fatigue.

What are the most common sources of interruption overload?

The most problematic sources of excessive interruptions are email, instant messaging/communications apps, and open office environments that lack barriers to prevent disturbances.

How long does it take to recover from an interruption?

Research shows it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to fully recover from a single interruption and regain lost focus and momentum.

What are some of the best ways individuals can control interruptions?

Useful techniques include time blocking, turning off notifications, wearing headphones, taking regular breaks, setting your status as busy, and politely communicating your focus needs.

How can leadership help foster a more focused working environment?

Leaders should discourage unnecessary interruptions, allow WFH time for focused work, provide private offices and quiet zones, discourage a culture of constant urgency, and train employees on managing interruptions.


In our modern technologically-driven workplaces, controlling interruptions is absolutely essential for boosting productivity, improving work quality, reducing stress, and enhancing cognitive performance. Both organizations and knowledge workers should actively work to minimize unnecessary disruptions. By implementing comprehensive strategies – like designated deep work time, fewer unnecessary meetings and emails, and private workspaces – companies can see significant gains in employee effectiveness, innovation, and job satisfaction. While some interruptions will always be inevitable, putting guardrails around excessive disruptions provides massive benefits to both individuals and organizations.

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