I Kept Track of Interruptions to My Work for 3 Days. Wow.

I recently went back and watched an old MarieTV episode, an interview with Ned Hallowell, who is one of the world’s leading performance and productivity experts. The topic of the interview was “Why Smart People Underperform,” but what caught my attention was something else. In this interview, Hallowell suggested that as much as 20 minutes of every hour we plan to spend doing an activity, we are barraged with interruptions.

That’s one-third of the time we intentionally set aside for chores, work, maybe even investing into our relationships. Holy cow. I remember the day I realized that eight of every twenty-four hours I’m alive is spent on sleep—a third of the time I thought I had to achieve my goals and make a difference in the world. Now I come to realize a third of what’s left—my waking hours—are possibly void, too?

I decided to try an experiment. I would document all interruptions to anything I’d intentionally set aside time to do—for one week. I was specifically interested in interruptions to my professional workflow, but once I became sensitive to the notion that I was being interrupted all the time, I started noticing interruptions to everything I was trying to do.

Here were some things I noted, going into this experiment:

  1. I do not have kids, a spouse, or pets, and I live on a quiet backroad in Maine, so I kind-of thought my rate of interruption might be less than the rest of the curve.
  2. I keep notifications turned off on my mobile device, except for calls and text messages. So no Facebook, Instagram, SnapChat, anything like that. And often, the sound on my phone is turned off, so I only know I’m being notified if I happen to see my screen light up. I do keep my phone with me at pretty much all times, but again, I thought my settings might decrease my rate of interruption.

It only took about six hours after I set out to count interruptions for one very big interruption to set off the tone of the experiment: a phone call I received in the middle of the night.

Now, before you panic for me, it was from Matt, who doesn’t usually call me when he gets done with his work but did today, probably because he hadn’t heard from me in several hours. (I had gone to bed early, knowing I planned to rise early in the morning.) We were on the phone for about an hour before I was too sleepy to keep on, and we hung up.

Now, while this was a happy interruption, it's worth noting that being interrupted in the middle of the night has a domino-effect of repercussions. It was also a prime way to start off measuring interruptions to my daily life, for a simple, unexpected reason:

Turns out, phone calls from loved ones would be the #1 interruption I would experience throughout my entire experiment. Matt was not alone. The next day, I received a phone call from an old co-worker friend, whom I hadn’t heard from in weeks; then a call from my friend Cara, who has almost always since our friendship began lived far away. I didn't even think I got calls very often! These were much welcome interruptions, in most ways, but for the purposes of my experiment, a premium example of what Hallowell meant about interruptions deferring our intentional activities.

The #2 really big interruptor was unexpected visits. I’m working with a craft-tools company on their online presence, and they’ve been very considerate to offer me a desk at their offices so that I can do work with ready access to all the people who can answer questions I have about products—a whole lot less of the email-back-and-forth nonsense that I would have experienced always working from home.

This in theory should have expedited my timeline for up-leveling their product listings copy, improving their photography for a more “lifestyle” sort of brand, and developing their social strategy. In the end, it might be about the same amount of time, being that employees come by my desk often to get my opinion on random things, or to learn more about what I’m working on. Again, welcome in many ways, but for the purposes of this experiment: still interruptions.

The #3 consistent interruptor was—predictably—me getting sidetracked on the internet. I do a lot of interview-watching on YouTube (how this whole experiment began!), and like most hugely successful e-platforms, YouTube has figured out how to recommend new videos for me that I might be interested in. Sometimes I’m wise and open a video in a new tab to watch later; sometimes I’m less wise and I say, “It’s only a ten-minute video. I have time for that.” And down the rabbit hole I go. Even knowing that this week I was wary of interruptions, the last few days were no exception in terms of watching videos I really didn’t need to.

Looking back over the results of the experiment—which confirmed that 20 minutes of every hour, and sometimes more, were given over to interruptions—I had the following thoughts:

  • Due to the nature of the kinds of interruptions I was experiencing—and allowing to happen—I felt I needed to ask myself, “What are my priorities?” A big reason I left my day job to work for myself was to be able to allow certain interruptions into my day without stressing about them—including calls and visits from friends and family. Therefore, sometimes, I could assign a value of “worthy” to that kind of interruption. As for YouTube videos: I’m a lifelong student, so watching interviews is part of my lifestyle—but are they more important than getting work done? Probably not.
  • After assessing which interruptions were worthy and which were less so, I needed to ask myself, “Which of the less-worthy interruptions are inevitable, and which are avoidable?” I can’t stop people from coming by my desk, but I can limit the amount of time I give them, or just be clear about which hours they’re permitted to come by. And I can certainly develop more discipline around getting sidetracked on the internet.
  • Then I needed to ask myself, “Which interruptions are stressing me out? And which are sapping my ability to be productive?” I tend to get stressed out when items on my to-do list—live calls, client meetings, photo sessions—are crammed too close together. As one item starts late, or runs late, I worry about the next one I’ve scheduled for myself. Interruptions play a big part in how timely I can be with moving from one task to the next. The solution? To space my appointments a little farther apart. I heard an excellent tip on this yesterday, which I will write about in a future post. As for the interruptions that sap my productivity, I need to learn to be more firm with my, “I’m sorry—I don’t have the time necessary to dedicate to this important matter right now. Is there another time we could address this, or is there another person who could help you with that?”

I do not wish to suggest that we can master time management, or account for every interruption that we will ever experience. Awareness around the kinds of things that pull away from our day is just a first step toward figuring out how to be most successful with our time. That will mean something different to every person; for me, it means a balance of life and work. It means accepting that interruptions are inevitable, but which ones I expend time and energy on is flexible. What does it mean for you? I’d love to hear. Comment below, or leave thoughts over on my Instagram, @alexisthegreek. Can’t wait to hear from you!

Alexis Paquette

Hi! My name is Alexis. I’m a web designer and photographer for creative professionals. While I’m based in New England, I travel and I accept work from all over the world from both small and international brands!