What Interrupts Us?

When we’re trying to get work done, what interrupts us? If you want to be more productive, it’s important to identify the triggers that interrupt your work and flow. Before you blame a chatty co-worker or your needy cat in your home office, take a look at these different types of interrupting forces.

External vs. Self Interruptions

Interruptions are largely categorized into two groups: external interruptions and self interruptions (Jin 2008).

External interruptions are exactly what you’d expect. They come from your environment. A few common examples are chatty co-workers and that needy cat in the home office I mentioned previously. If your boss interrupts you to ask for an update on a project or task, that’s an external interruption. If you have notifications enabled on your email account that flash on screen and ding when you get a new message, those are also external interruptions. When you have to put your work down to attend a meeting, that’s also an external interruption.

Self interruptions are also what you’d expect. They come from within. A few researchers have tried to classify different types of self-interruption, but there is no set that everyone agrees on at the moment. Jin (2008) came up with five ideas that aren’t bad but seem to have some overlap (and no. 2 hardly seems to be a self interruption):

  1. breaks – spontaneous recess from work to alleviate stress or to decrease the chance of distraction later through boredom
  2. distractions – reactions to minimal external stimuli
  3. reminders – intentional actions taken on a different task to prevent future negligence of that task; reminders are often triggers to deviations (see no. 5)
  4. obstacles – task switches caused by the need to remove obstacles from the environment that could be distracting
  5. deviations – gradual shifts away from the primary task that can span over several task switches, and which may be tied to breaks.

Some researchers theorize that we interrupt our own work in order to keep at it for the long-haul, or because we are trying to achieve a state of flow (Adler, 2013). While it may be true sometimes, I hardly think it’s the primary reason people have self-interruptions. If you ask anyone who is concerned about their productivity to describe their daily interruptions and self-interruptions, you’ll hear that email and meetings are really the big offenders.

Email as an Interrupting Force

Email seems to be both an external interruption and a self interruption. After all, the user is the one who chooses whether to enable email alerts. When a notifications pings on a computer screen or on the phone, how we respond to it is a choice, too.

How we feel about email matters, too. If email is the primary way we become aware of problems that directly affect our work, of course we want to check it obsessively and make sure nothing is going wrong. If we typically respond to notifications by tending to them, then we create a habit for ourselves, and we all know habits are hard to break.

I’m sure it’s no surprise to hear that one study found people left their email programs open and running in the background all times both at work and at home. They checked their inboxes on average every five minutes (Renaud, 2006). That’s how we work and live. It’s a habit, and it’s a very normal, culturally accepted habit. But it probably isn’t the best habit to have if you want to increase your productivity.

In one experiment (Gould, 2013), participants were asked to complete an online task that took about 32 minutes. They were told to only work on the task. Still, during those 32 minutes, 80 percent of the people switched tasks (i.e., self interrupted) at least once, and on average they did it six times! That’s about once every five minutes, which is exactly the same amount of time Renaud found people checked email. Sound like a habit? You betchya.

I’ve noted before that the problem with email isn’t the sheer amount of time we spend in it, but rather that our email time is broken up into little moments throughout the entire day. Email itself isn’t unproductive necessarily, but checking it frequently is.

Our bad email-checking habits are allowing this otherwise banal communication tool to break our concentration and interrupt our flow dozens or hundreds of times throughout the day.

Are Meetings Interruptions?

Workers complain as much about meetings being an interrupting force as they do about email. And based on some research, Ii turns out that meetings may be even more like email as interrupting forces than we previously thought.

“[I]t is the frequency of interruptions and not the amount of time they consume that leads to negative consequences,” (Long, 2005, citing Zijlstra, 1999). Six short meetings of 15 minutes each hurts productivity much more than one long hour-and-a-half meeting.

The underlying assumption behind all this research is that to be productive, we need to focus for long stretches of time. So becoming more productive is as much about creating an environment and habits that are conducive to working uninterrupted as it is about telling your chatty co-worker or cat to scram.


Adler, R., & Benbunan-Fich, R. (2013). Self-interruptions in discretionary multitasking. Computers in Human Behavior, 1441-1449.

Gould, S. J. J., Cox, A. L., & Brumby, D. P. (2013). Frequency and duration of self-initiated task-switching in an online investigation of interrupted performance. In Human computation and crowdsourcing: Works in progress and demonstration abstracts AAAI technical report CR-13-01 (pp. 22–23).

Jin, J. (2008). Are You Your Own Worst Enemy? Self‐Interruption on the Computer. [Undergraduate thesis abstract]

Luong, A., & Rogelberg, S. G. (2005). Meetings and More Meetings: The Relationship Between Meeting Load and the Daily Well-Being of Employees.Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice, 9(1), 58.

Renaud, K., Ramsay, J., & Hair, M. (2006). ‘You’ve got e-mail!’… Shall I deal with it now? Electronic mail from the recipient’s perspective. International Journal of Human–Computer Interaction, 21(3), 313–332.

Rose, E. (2011). Continuous Partial Attention Teaching and Learning in the Age of Interruption. Antistasis, 1(2).

Zijlstra, F. R., Roe, R. A., Leonora, A. B., & Krediet, I. (1999). Temporal factors in mental work: Effects of interrupted activities. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 72, 163–185.

Photo by Necosky, CC.


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