Managing Distractions

managing distractions

The Impact of Interruptions

It seems obvious, but distractions lurk in many corners, and can be efficiency killers both at home and the office, and managing distractions in this age of information overload can be challenging. Interruptions take an organizational and personal toll. Research shows that task recovery when interrupted is time consuming (adding 3% to 27% more time to complete the tasks), yields annoyance, and doubles the risk of mistakes and anxiety.

Interruptions don’t have to be long or complicated to pack a punch. Erik Altman, a psychology professor at Michigan State University in East Lansing, and the lead author on a study investigating the impact of interruptions on concentration soon to be published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, indicated in an interview with Shellenbarger that “two seconds is long enough to make people lose the thread.”

Once interrupted, resuming a task can be difficult, and studies vary on how long it can take to get back on task after being interrupted (Shellenbarger cites studies that range from 15 to 25 minutes). In this age of heightened distractions and informational demands, avoiding interruptions can be a valuable tool in harnessing the power of our attention.

Handling In-Person Interruptions

The Wall Street Journal recently cited studies that have addressed the toll of interuptions at work, noting the most common disruptions come from co-workers, and not email or instant messaging. Face-to-face interruptions account for one-third more intrusions than email or phone calls, which employees feel freer to defer or ignore, according to a 2011 study in the journal Organization Studies.

A coworker comes to our office door, a neighbor stops us on our morning jog or our family needs us during working hours. These interruptions are particularly challenging when we are part of a team – personal or professional. Limiting interruptions involves structure and communication. Here are a few tips:

  • Think ahead in order to prevent predictable social distractions: close the door, don’t answer the phone, consider hanging a “busy” sign outside your office, tell your family/co-workers that you cannot be interrupted unless it’s an emergency. Consider wearing noise canceling headphones.
  • If you share an office calendar, block out the time as unavailable. Plan for and treat this focus time as a very important meeting that cannot be missed, and stick to your plan.
  • When unexpected interruptions occur, be prepared to resist engaging and allow events to happen as though you really weren’t there.
  • Striking a balance with interruptions can be tough in a work setting and avoiding interruptions aren’t always possible.  The trick is to strike a balance between doing your job efficiently and tending to the needs of those who interrupt. If you can’t avoid an interruption, be prepared to quickly size up the importance of an interruption, and respond. If the issue is urgent or merits your immediate attention, do not hesitate to shift gears. If the issue is not urgent, explain politely yet firmly that you are unavailable and will get back to them as soon as possible. Consider yourself a human answering machine or an assistant, and tell the person you will give them your attention at a later time.
  • Beware of repeat offenders: Do not be tempted by a person’s assurance of brevity or your own desire for efficiency by handling the request on the spot. Remember that each time you permit an interruption, not only have you delayed your own assignment and broken your train of thought, which requires additional time to restore, but you have also rewarded the person who interrupted you and, therefore, encouraged a recurrence. This is particularly important to understand regarding personal and professional relationships, which build on experience. No matter how often you say that you cannot be interrupted, your behavior speaks louder than words. By caving in to the demands of those who do interrupt, you will have undermined all of your efforts in carving out the focus time and betrayed others who have respected your request.

Limiting Electronic Distractions

Email and news alerts are major offenders to productivity as is human curiosity and distraction that is often peaked in an online environment. According to the Centers for Disease Control, ADHD symptoms, and their pharmacological treatment, are on the rise for better or for worse.  While we have not identified a definitive cause, the trend correlates with the unprecedented on-demand capabilities of modern technology, and the exponential increase of digital information we process.

  • If your task involves using a computer, use discipline. Close other programs when it is time to focus, and stay focussed when searching be it online or in your email. Beware of the temptation to read off-topic material, or glance at other emails. Use the email search function instead of browsing through your messages.
  • Be wary of internet advertising and imbedded links. Such marketing tactics are built on the predictability of human distraction. Before beginning your search, be mentally prepared to ignore intriguing messages. You could always mark a page of interest and go back to it later or find it again when you have time.
  • Can’t be trusted to stay focussed? Try a software program called Freedom, which blocks the Internet, or OmmWriter, which provides a distraction-free writing space.

Managing Environmental Distractions

Background noise is distracting, and weeding it out is mentally taxing for most of us when we are engaged in a cognitive task. For example, reading while listening to music with words, watching TV or being around background conversations requires your brain to choose where to focus. This switching back and forth is difficult, and it makes reading harder.

  • Limit distractions, and keep TV, music, and other auditory distractions to a minimum.
  • Likewise, if you have some thinking to do on your commute, resist the urge to keep the radio on. Talk shows and news broadcasts will take your mental attention away from the task at hand, as research has shown that listening to sentences while driving decreases driving accuracy. Most music will likewise stimulate personal associations, again tempting distraction.
  • If silence simply is not practical, consider soothing music without words, white-noise CDs, or noise-cancelling headphones.

As we acculturate to our rapidly changing and on-demand world, distractions are ever present risks to our already taxed capacity to focus. Our ability to manage distractions will remain an important tool as we look to maximize productivity at the office, at home, and in our personal lives.


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Altmann, E. M., Trafton, J. G., & Hambrick, D. Z. (in press). Momentary interruptions can derail the train of thought. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

Bailey, B. P. & Konstan, J.A. (2006). On the need for attention-aware systems: Measuring effects of interruption on task performance, error rate, and affective state. Computers in Human Behavior 22(4), 685–708.

Bohn, R. E., & Short, J. E. (2009, December). How Much Information? 2009 Report on American Consumers. Global Information Industry Center University of California, San Diego. Retrieved from

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2013, May 13). ADHD throughout the years. Data & Statistics. Retrieved from

Just, M. A., Keller, T. A., & Cynkar, J. A. (2008). A decrease in brain activation associated with driving while listening to someone speak. Brain Research, 1205, 70-80.

Shellenbarger, S. (2013, September 10). The biggest office interruptions are not what most people think. And even a 2-second disruption can lead to a doubling of errors.Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from

Wajcman, J. & Rose, E. (2011). Constant Connectivity: Rethinking Interruptions at Work.Organization Studies, 32(7), 941-961.  

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Alicia H. Clark, PsyD