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Workers converse in this file photo from Feb. 3, 2019. Elana Feldman, an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts, tracked interruptions of 35 people in a work day and found some surprising results.

metamorworks/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

In our quest to be productive, interruptions – from e-mails to colleagues wanting to chat -- seem a menace. But it may be time to rethink interruptions and, indeed, productivity itself.

Elana Feldman, an assistant professor of business at the University of Massachusetts, asked 35 people in multiple industries and with varied job titles to keep track of their interruptions over the course of a workday. Collectively they reported a total of 256 interruptions. But nearly a third of those interruptions – 30 per cent – were positive, associated with feelings such as excitement and happiness.

Positive interruptions were those considered time worthy: high-priority, relevant to other ongoing projects and clearly within the scope of the employee’s job. Timing was also important. “Well-timed interruptions are those that arise when employees are not deeply absorbed in another task or need a break from their current task,” she writes on The Conversation.

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As might be expected, shorter interruptions are better – generally sparking positive rather than negative emotions. The study also suggests we view interruptions more positively if we like the person who has interrupted us.

If that study asks you to alter your thoughts on interruptions and productivity a bit, blogger Scott Young takes it further by asking you to consider what productivity is – and isn’t. First, he says it’s not work ethic or hustle. “The decision to work a lot is a question of values -- how important is work in your life? Productivity, in contrast, is about how do you accomplish the most, given how much time and energy you want to devote to work,” he writes on his website. He cites Elon Musk, who is productive but also a workaholic, putting in 100-hour weeks.

He suggests productivity is not time management, which often focuses on trying to maximize every sliver of time in the day to eke out more work. That sounds good but fails in two regards. First, the reality is you have more time available than effort. Second, he stresses productivity means maximizing your capacity for important work, not injecting more and more busyness.

Productivity is not just doing things that look like work, since things that don’t look like work can actually be quite productive. “Conversations with colleagues, long walks to think, taking naps when you’re tired, vacations and hobbies can all be enormously productive, in the broader context,” he writes. In this regard, he warns against “signalling,” putting in long hours and looking obsessive about work to impress others or quell your own anxiety.

For him, productivity is a measure of your output divided by your input – output being measured by the importance of the accomplishment to your goals. “A person who outputs lots of unimportant stuff is still unproductive,” he says.

As for working long hours, we generally assume – as Mr. Young does in referring to Mr. Musk – it’s a sign of being a workaholic. But Lieke ten Brummelhuis, an associate professor of management at Simon Fraser University and Nancy Rothbard, a professor of management at the Wharton School, distinguish between the behaviour of working long hours and the mentality of feeling a compulsion to work, or workaholism. A study of 3,500 employees at the Dutch subsidiary of an international financial consulting firm found work hours were not related to any health issues, while workaholism was. “Unlike people who merely work long hours, workaholics struggle to psychologically detach from work. And we know that ongoing rumination often goes together with stress, anxiety, depression, and sleep problems, and it impedes recovery from work,” they write in Harvard Business Review. However, it does appear some of the impact is mitigated if you love your work, feeling it’s worth the effort.

Quick hits

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  • Consultant Roy H. Williams says it may sound cold or harsh but a person who talks about “the way things ought to be” in the workplace needs to take action or shut up and get on with their lives. If you share your indignation with people who don’t have the power to change things and you have no intention of talking to the people who do have the power, you’re just complaining, moaning, and whining.
  • Want to be fully present – in the moment? It happens naturally at the movies, because you are engaging at least three of the five senses, says Mukesh Gupta, director of customer advocacy at SAP India Private Ltd. Engage as many sense as possible in other situations when you want to be fully present.
  • To appear powerful in your next interview, career coach Natasha Nurse recommends this phrase: “When I was ____, I solved a problem that involved…” Also helpful: “I took the initiative to develop…” and “I enjoyed collaborating with my team members to…”
  • A survey of 300 hiring managers by TopResume found the top six ways to fail in a job interview are lying about experience, education, skills or achievements; appearing disinterested in the opportunity; being unprepared; arriving late (without a valid excuse); showing poor hygiene and/or grooming; and dressing inappropriately.
  • Most of the time Microsoft Word’s automatic creation of bulleted lists is handy. When it’s not, press Ctrl+Z and it will be cancelled.

Stay ahead in your career. We have a weekly Careers newsletter to give you guidance and tips on career management, leadership, business education and more. Sign up today.

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