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Interruptions are a fact of organizational life. No matter how we try to insulate ourselves from others so that we can focus deeply on a task, interruptions are inevitable, often with a more urgent task we are supposed to address. The solution is to develop a ready-to-resume plan, easing our mind about that important but little-considered aspect of the interruption.

Sophie Leroy, an associate professor at the University of Washington Bothell, and Theresa Glomb, chair of organizational behaviour in the Carlson School of Management, decided to dig deeper into the issue of interruptions, focusing on the context. “Specifically, our research shows that being interrupted is especially difficult when we anticipate facing time pressure upon resuming interrupted work,” they write in Harvard Business Review.

In their study, participants started working on a first task – call it Task A. After five minutes, the interrupters asked them to stop their still incomplete work in order to switch to Task B, the interrupting task. The participants had been divided into two groups: One group was told they wouldn’t have very much time to finish later while the other group was told they would have plenty of time.

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Those in the first group clung more psychologically to the original task, their attention splintered. They did not process information well, didn’t notice errors, and when asked to make a decision based on recalled information were less likely to identify the optimal solution. But in the other group, when participants anticipated that they would have plenty of time to complete the interrupted task, switching away was less difficult and they performed better.

Developing a “ready-to-resume” plan when interrupted would put the brain at ease about your ability to complete the interrupted task upon return, and, further research found, help you to switch attention more effectively. And it need not be an elaborate plan – after all, you have been interrupted, presumably to do something else immediately.

Participants were told in the study to take a minute to note where they were on the interrupted task, and what they wanted to do upon return. Then they switched to the other challenge. Putting the brain at ease led, amongst other benefits, to 79 per cent more effectiveness when participants had to evaluate profiles for a job position and pick the best candidate, a test by the researchers of decision making when dealing with complex information.

Even when the boss is the interrupter, they suggest asking for a moment to jot down notes on the interrupted task and thanking him or her for allowing you to be fully present should be appreciated. And when you are the interrupter, explain the value of a ready-to-resume plan to the individual caught in mid-task.

In a similar vein, career coach Tina Essmaker singles out the toll uncompleted tasks take on our bandwidth. “How many to-do items are rolling around in your head at any given minute?” she asks on the 99U blog.

She notes that incompletions can be negligible, like responding to a simple e-mail, or acute, like projects you need to wrap up, promises you have yet to deliver on, or even looming conversations. She suggests you spend five minutes listing down all of your incompletions as well as “drains” – activities that take you away from important tasks. Determine which you control and which you don’t. Keep in mind that for the latter you still can control how you engage, respond or proceed. Now cross them off your list and make a plan for the remainder, such as delegating, stopping procrastination or the perfectionism holding you back, or just letting go mentally.

“Addressing drains and incompletions may seem like a small, simple idea, but it can dramatically improve your workflow and increase your energy and feelings of productivity,” she says.

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Quick hits

  • For two to three weeks track the requests you receive and how long it takes you to complete them. Productivity coach Melissa Gratias says that will better help you in future to advise colleagues when a response can be expected.
  • Putting your phone on Do Not Disturb is the best gift you can give yourself, says author and editor Sam Lansky.
  • Journalist Una Dabiero advises asking these two questions to indicate your potential to your boss. “I’m really interested in this topic that I’ve been learning a lot about recently. Could we keep that in mind while assigning projects over the next few months?” Or: “I’m really excited about the work we’ve been doing. What is your biggest challenge surrounding it right now and how could I help?
  • Entrepreneur Colin Dowling says “sales is a lot like golf. You can make it so complicated as to be impossible or you can simply walk up and hit the ball. I’ve been leading and building sales orgs for almost 20 years and my advice is to walk up and hit the ball.”
  • If your Zoom happy hours are aimless, talking about the latest coronavirus news, psychology professor Dan Ariely suggests using conversational starters like “would you like to be famous? In what way?” and “what would constitute a perfect day for you?” drawn from fellow psychologist Arthur Aron’s list of 36 “closeness-generating” questions.

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