Interruptions, Distractions & Breaks

Do not disturb sign
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

In a world full of productivity tools, it seems like many of us feel less productive than ever. What is the problem? Have we lost the ability to focus? In our defense, it seems that people, calls, images, sounds, and vibrations are perpetually popping up, drawing our attention away from the topic at hand. Since we cannot truly think about two things at once, multi-tasking actually requires us to toggle our focus, a practice that undermines our efficiency. Still, not all cessations of concentration are the same. Some actually improve our performance. In order to “up your game,” it is important to know the difference between interruptions, distractions and breaks.

INTERRUPTIONS

An interruption occurs when an external entity disrupts our attention. Classic examples include:

  • A crying child
  • An unwelcome conversation
  • A ringing phone or an “urgent” text
  • A knock at the door
  • An accident snarling traffic
  • A power failure
  • A computer crash
  • A fire alarm

The degree to which an interruption interferes with our plans can range from small to enormous. We might be able to silence a phone in a few seconds, but when the school calls because our child has just thrown up, the whole day (or more) can be shot. If you look at the graph below, you can see that the more time an interruption requires, the more detrimental the impact on our productivity will be. Interruptions can quickly snowball, ruining your plans.

curve showing impact of interruptions on productivity

DISTRACTIONS

Distractions are similar to interruptions, but they are not completely beyond our control. Instead, distractions are diversions that we enter into (at least somewhat) willingly. For instance, we…

  • Check our messages
  • Check or post on social media
  • Daydream
  • Check the stock market
  • Surf the Internet
  • Watch TV
  • Brew a cup of coffee

The common ingredient in distractions is that they are not refreshing. They provide release from the tension of the moment, but only temporarily. Distractions redirect our focus off of what we need to accomplish and onto something else. Distractions are often delaying tactics, things we do to put off carrying out the work we need to do. Unfortunately, while they may provide a momentary alleviation of stress or anxiety, they rarely provide fresh insight or new energy.

In the illustration, you see that distractions tend to “nibble away” at our effectiveness. They waste a little time, but since we are still in control, we can break free from them when we choose.  Since the brain requires a bit of time to regroup after shifting focus, the productivity curve trends downward. However, the impact of distractions is largely in proportion to the time they are allotted.

impact of distractions on productivity

BREAKS

In contrast to interruptions and distractions, breaks are intentional and desirable pauses in effort. We take breaks when we mindfully step away from a task for a defined period, with the goal of improving productivity. A break can be:

  • Taking a walk
  • Going out of the office for lunch
  • Taking a power nap
  • Journaling
  • Exercising
  • Cooking
  • Meditating or praying

Breaks are not only nice, but also critical for long-term success. Human beings are not machines, but rather living beings. Our energy waxes and wanes, and we need to nourish body, mind and spirit in order to perform up to our highest potential. In the graph below, you see that interruptions temporarily decrease output, but when they are over, they have a positive impact on the productivity curve. In fact, sometimes break periods can actually enhance performance by giving our minds permission to think creatively (read more about that here).  Wisely planned, intermittent breaks invigorate us and enhance productivity over time.

impact of breaks on productivity

[Note: too many breaks, or breaks that last too long, will have the opposite result; we have to do the work.  The ratio of break/work needs to be in proper alignment.]

While no one lives in a perfect environment, we are not powerless.

When it comes to interruptions

… we can cope as best we can, learn where possible, and do whatever is within our power to minimize them going forward.

When it comes to distractions

… we should acknowledge their negative impact and allow ourselves a only a limited few.

When it comes to breaks

… we can plan them wisely, and enjoy them fully and without guilt.

*     *     *     *     *

What interruptions and distractions are you most likely to suffer? Do you plan – and then take – time to give yourself a break?

24 thoughts on “Interruptions, Distractions & Breaks”

  1. These are beautiful illustrations and examples of the differences between interruptions, distractions, and breaks. I also like how you’ve distinguished the impact they each have and the role we play in allowing or creating them. The surprise interruptions are the ones we have the least control over. We never know when something unplanning will happen. One of the things that help me cope with life’s emergencies is to allow some white space in my days. That way, when the unexpected arises, I have room to move things around. When I schedule too tightly, I become even more stressed and pressured in surprise situations. As far as taking breaks goes, the benefits affect not just productivity, but also your general well-being. I’m a firm believer in making time to renew the mind and body.
    Linda Samuels recently posted…Number One Success Hack That Will Help YouMy Profile

    1. I totally agree with you about the white space concept. Even if I haven’t scheduled it in at the “right” moment, knowing it is there gives me a bit of peace of mind. I can shift things around in an emergency if I’ve allotted enough space in my day. I confess that I don’t have this space every day, but I do incorporate it whenever I can. Few of us can be productive 24/7.

  2. I love that we can make a plan to use breaks in such a productive way. Scheduling “interruptions” like when a colleague or team member need information can help that team member too!

    1. Exactly, Ellen. Life happens, but sometimes we can use our planning time to get ahead of interruptions. This is a “win/win” for us, and for those who may need our help and attention.

    1. Interruptions can be highly destructive to our plans, and you are right that we just don’t always have any control over them. The good news is that having conducted thoughtful planning usually means we will respond better when they hit. I hope that this will give people permission to enjoy their breaks and not feel guilty, while helping readers realize that minimizing distractions can help them “find” hours in their day.

  3. This post is a wonderful resource to clarify the differences between interruptions, distractions, and breaks. I find that breaks need to be planned to take full advantage of the full benefit. Determining ahead of time the length of the break, when it will be completed, and the task that will be done helps you shift to that action quickly so you can take advantage of every signal moment.
    Sabrina Quairoli recently posted…Super Easy Playroom Organizing TipsMy Profile

  4. I found having a separate space to work helps me manage interruptions and distractions. Not always, but better than if I worked at my kitchen table. I have to work on taking breaks. I get in a zone and work to exhaustion.Not good. I am trying to incorporate more exercise into my life. Maybe I can schedule a break to take a walk.

    1. I think the fact that you can “get in a zone” is a huge asset, but yes, working yourself to exhaustion is not a great long term plan:) I agree that having designated spaces for various tasks is very helpful. They can be a subconscious message that it is time to get to work, and they can be designed to both minimize distractions make us as productive as possible!

    1. Thanks Standolyn. Sometimes a visual really does communicate a thought better than words. My brain thinks this way, so every now and then I just can’t resist a good graphic:)

  5. Love to think of it this way! As a work at home mama, I’m so prone to both interruptions (neighbors, UPS truck, kids) and distractions (playing with my cat, having coffee, listening to birds, scrolling Instagram), and those healthy breaks really are my favorite. After solid work!

    1. I agree that working from home is really hard. It demands a lot of discipline, and even still, you can’t control the interruptions. Sometimes, when I’m writing, I find it is easier to just head to the library where I know it will be quiet:)

  6. This was a very informative post. I hadn’t thought of it in this way. I think distractions-including letting my mind wander-are my worse problem, though interruptions are always annoying. The charts make it immediately clear. I am not good at taking breaks. I will have to work on that.

    1. It doesn’t take much to draw our attention away, especially from a boring or unpleasant task. My mind wanders as well. I’m glad you liked the charts… sometimes a visual can clarify a thought, right? Good luck with the breaks, Dianne:) We all need to take them!

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