Forced smile

In my line of work, people come to me because they are feeling crushed by having so many different projects. In our new modern world we are impacted by so many different kinds of technologies (thank you social media and smartphones!) duplicating the different places where we can focus our attention.

There is an associated stress that comes from switching topics so rapidly throughout the workday.

A recent study found that in a working environment, people switched between simple activities such as phone calls and emails on average of every three minutes and five seconds, although roughly half of them are self-interruptions.

However an interruption can be beneficial if it matches the topic of the current task at hand. But sometimes incubating an idea or task (sleeping on it) allows your brain to rest and to revisit the task with clarity.  I think this is most beneficial when you want to write an angry email.  You write it, re-write it and spend lots of energy and time on it.  Leaving it for a while and coming back to it you will find you have calmed down a little and able to write something professionally and succinct (or can avoid sending it at all!)

Any kind of automatic task that doesn’t require a lot of thinking normally doesn’t have too much of an impact.  Such as “Hey, did you send that letter yesterday?” or “Can you quickly sign this?” The key here is that they are a short impact with little brain power.

Of course, t’s generally going to be counterproductive if you’re working on one task and you’re interrupted on a completely different topic. It’s a major brain shift that requires significant brain power. You have to completely shift your thinking, it takes you a while to get into it and it takes you a while to get back and remember where you were.

However, the happy middle ground is when you can cluster work into similar style events, a phone call, a document on a similar subject is quite normal for people to switch between.  And typically we switch between those styles every 10 and a half minutes.

82 percent of all interrupted work is completed on the same day, BUT it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to each task.

As expected, the psychological cost of switching is that there is significantly more stress. In addition to higher levels of stress, workers can also experience increase in frustrations, mental effort, feeling of time pressure and mental workload.

Interestingly, when people are not interrupted they worked slower. Perhaps this is because when people know they can expect interruption they work faster to compensate. When you know you’re going to be continually interrupted, you compensate by working faster.  I don’t know about you but that sounds like a stressful environment!  It creates the sensation of just not being able to keep up. It creates what some call “invisible work”: the work that your colleagues and managers don’t see, the extra work you have to get done just to keep up with the demands of your working environment.

Many people are required to really sink their brain into complex problems or analysis of work.  If people are switching projects every 10 and half minutes they can’t possibly be thinking deeply or creating a work flow.  This is really bad for innovation.

The best solution to preserve your productive time is to quarantine yourself for blocks of time.  Whether you stay at home, switch off your phone, ignore your email or but a blanket ban on your colleagues in the office.

My advice to those that can’t keep up is to limit your web usage and be disciplined about when you check your emails.

Now be honest, have you read this start to finish or have you done another task at the same time?

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Frank Daley
7 years ago

True, Barbara. Some interruptions, much like SOME minor multitasking, can be handled without breaking concentration too badly but most of it s as you describe. One problem is the vocal request, question or statement from another room. It’s bad enough at any time but most people do not know how to send a message . They don’t connect with the receiver by calling a name, waiting for a reply and then beginning to speak. They just start speaking, sending a (non) message with no identified receiver. The result is a) no message gets through except the fact (maybe–because the words… Read more »

6 years ago
Reply to  Frank Daley

Great arictle, thank you again for writing.

Mandy Worrall
7 years ago

As a coach who has experienced it, I have also seen this happen to others a lot! It’s especially common with people working from home. They ‘have’ to feel connected, so this means being open to all communications and demands. It’s not just emails or telecoms either, but people ‘popping in’, as if they are on holiday, so it has to be fine, right? Aargh! So, in order to not lose friends they give in – until they are out of time, overburdened, tired and stressed out. Just say no politely. Tell the significant people in your life you have… Read more »


[…] In fact, moving from task to task can actually mean that you are being less productive.  We think that we are saving time by doing a million things at once, but this can actually be slowing us down. Each task that we set out to achieve requires a specific mindset. Doing multiple tasks at once can hinder this thought process. It is much better to pay your bills, and then attend to the emails waiting for you. Otherwise the thought processes can intersect and confuse the understanding of the task. For example, if you have four bills to pay and seven… Read more »

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First off I would like to say fantastic blog! I had a quick question that
I’d like to ask if you do not mind. I was curious to find out how you center yourself and clear your head prior to
writing. I have had a hard time clearing my thoughts in getting my thoughts out.
I truly do enjoy writing however it just seems like the first
10 to 15 minutes are lost simply just trying to figure out how to begin. Any suggestions or tips?
Many thanks!