To Be More Productive, Limit Interruptions

Allowing yourself to be interrupted all the time reduces your effectiveness as much as an all-nighter, says Boston University’s Marshall Van Alstyne. The solution is to batch your time on task and step away from the social media.

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Allowing yourself to be interrupted all the time reduces your effectiveness as much as an all-nighter, says Boston University’s Marshall Van Alstyne.

Image courtesy of Flickr user ihtatho.

The downside of social media is the same as the downside to collaborative culture and open offices: Interruptions. Lots of interruptions.

“I like the technologies that give me control, and I’m cautious allowing interrupt-driven communication,” said Marshall Van Alstyne, associate professor at Boston University and a visiting professor at MIT, in a recent interview with MIT Sloan Management Review.

“If you allow some of these social technologies like Twitter or Facebook or others to interrupt you constantly, it can dramatically reduce your productivity,” Van Alstyne said.

He cited laboratory experiments conducted by researchers in England with Hewlett-Packard which examined interrupt-driven communications, giving people problems to solve with distractions along the way.

What they found, said Van Alstyne, is that “allowing yourself to be interrupted all the time, as opposed to focusing on the task and barring interruption, was roughly equivalent to pulling an all-nighter. It’s almost as if you didn’t get any sleep at all that represents the relative loss of effectiveness.”

Van Alstyne made his comments in the article “Why Strong Ties Matter More in a Fast-Changing Environment.”

Reader Darakhshan Saeed, in a comment about the article on Facebook, concurred. “The wrong, untamed use of multi-tasking is becoming an epidemic,” she wrote. Educators “should start offering a class or coaching in middle/high schools on how to effectively manage multi-tasking, how to organize and discipline yourself for blocks of uninterrupted time in their work day.” This is, she added, “fast becoming a skill the new generation will need in order to manage their success and well-being in the adult world.”

True. It’s one thing to deal with people who interrupt you; it’s another thing to deal with your own tendency to interrupt yourself.

Managing that tendency is critical. As one blogger put it in a post at several years ago: “Being productive isn’t something that just happens. You don’t just sit down and be productive. Real productivity takes time. It’s a process. You make your way into it.


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Comments (5)
The other risk is how email comes in continuously via many cloud based email services like Gmail. You have to have discipline to not constantly check and respond to email all day long which is a major productivity disrupter.
Leslie Brokaw
Scott -- Thanks for the details on Jason Fried, whose blog post I quoted here. 

For anyone interested in reading more from Jason, details about his book ReWork are at:

Among the quotes you'll find: 
"ASAP is poison" 
"Fire the workaholics" 
"Underdo the competition"
What Peter Drucker Would Be Reading | The Drucker Exchange
[...] 2.  To Be More Productive, Limit Interruptions:  We know how costly interruptions can be during the workday. Researchers say the effects can be worse than those of pulling an all-nighter. But Leslie Brokaw at the MIT Sloan Management Review’s Innovations blog says it’s not enough to stop others from breaking up your concentration, because sometimes you’re the responsible party. “It’s one thing to deal with people who interrupt you,” she writes. “It’s another thing to deal with your own tendency to interrupt yourself.” [...]
One needs to put strict schedules to social networkings, else one would end up doing other than what one one is supposed to. I asked a CEO of a pharma company once, "How do you manage so much in a day" and pat came the reply "I do not permit interruptions".

There is a positive side to interruptions though, they come as de-stressors, but then they must happen after a definite gap of say 3 hours everytime and not for more than 10 minutes.

A friend who heads operations of a German company into dairy products, does not entertain any call from social connects till it is lunch time. He has trained his friends such that none interrupts him during office hours.

People behave as we teach them to, Isn't it?

Ajay Kumar Handa
Having the self-discipline to shut off the interruption-causing technologies is key. It's like when you were a kid and shutting the shades and turning on music so you didn't have to hear or watch your friends play outside when you had homework to do. Nice piece.

One addition - the blogger you referenced at is Jason Fried, co-founder of the company and co-author of the best selling business book: ReWork. In that book, he and his co-author (who is the other co-founder of 37Signals) layout out their business philosophy, which is quite aligned with your post.