You hate interruptions, particularly if you’re trying to focus on finishing a complex task that requires sustained attention. Few things are more infuriating than having something come along and break your concentration just as you’re starting to make real progress. You may have snapped at whoever interrupted you–I know I have. But if you want to keep interruptions from cutting into your work flow, you first have to accept this brutal truth: For most of us, the most destructive interruptions are those we allow, or even create ourselves.
A couple of weeks ago, I decided to block out a Friday to prepare for an international trip and speaking engagement. As I was setting about the work I needed to do, I heard the unmistakable ding of a notification coming from my desktop computer. I found myself paralyzed for about ten seconds, standing outside the door of my home office. I knew perfectly well that the right thing to do would be to finish the task I was working on and check my notification later on, just as I knew that all my urgent work was in hand and that whatever it was could certainly wait for an hour until I got to it.
As someone who spends a lot of her time writing about productivity, I knew how insane it was to drop what I was doing midstream and go read that notification. And yet, I couldn’t help myself–that’s exactly what I did. The fact is that when it comes to interruptions I’m my own worst enemy, even though I should know better. I’m willing to bet you are too.
It’s very, very hard to break the self-interruption habit. Here are some tactics that can help.
1. Technology brings interruptions. Use it to limit them instead.
When I stood up from my desk that day, it would have been so very simple to press the mute key on my keyboard and stop the flow of dings bell tones and other sounds that signal incoming messages on the various platforms people use to reach me. I could have turned on Focus Assist, to mute most notifications, and set my smartphone to Do Not Disturb. Any of these steps would have removed the temptation to interrupt myself and go read that message.
Of course, there are such things as true emergencies. If you have a school-aged child, for example, you want the school to be able to reach you right away. But you can use technology to set up a special notification sound or other alert for those few truly urgent messages, allowing you to safely ignore the rest until you’re ready to read them.
2. Wait ten seconds.
When you get a notification, your automatic reaction may be to interrupt what you’re doing and look at it. Try to break into that autopilot response by stopping, setting down your phone or other device, and counting out ten seconds.
After the ten seconds are up, take a deep breath and ask yourself this question: “Why now?” You most likely will reach a natural break point in your task sometime within the next 30 to 45 minutes. Does whatever notification you got really need your attention right now and not 45 minutes from now? What would be the consequences of waiting those few minutes while you finish whatever you’re trying to focus on? And what would be the consequences of not finishing your current task, or not doing it well, because of too many self-interruptions?
3. Plan for working blocks of time and break times.
I’m a fan of the Pomodoro Technique, which calls for 25-minutes of work time followed by five minutes of break time. That makes a lot of sense, considering that research suggests most adults can sustain attention for about 20 minutes at a time. For me, the beauty of this approach is that if I’m, say, halfway through a 25-minute work session and I feel a burning desire to check my email, I can often persuade myself to wait 12 1/2 minutes till the next official break. The worst interruptions are ones we impose on ourselves, and using a system such as this can help you relegate those self-interruptions to break times when they’ll do less harm.
4. Stare out the window (and put your phone across the room).
While you’re working, your attention will inevitably wander–that’s just the way the human brain works. Problems arise, though, when your brain goes looking for distraction and lands on something really absorbing, such as your Facebook feed or your favorite game.
So don’t give it anything too compelling to glom onto. Put your smartphone somewhere across the room where you’ll have to stand up and walk over to it if you want to use social media apps or any other mobile apps. Close out your favorite distracting websites. According to neuroscientist Josh Davis, the very best thing to do when your mind wants to wander is just stare out a window. That can provide a momentary distraction, but not a very tempting one so that soon enough your brain will naturally get back to whatever it was supposed to be doing. If your workplace doesn’t have a window, try hanging a favorite poster or photograph on the wall to create a similar effect.
5. Ask yourself how the interruption is serving you.
You probably know by now that multitasking is terrible for your productivity and your brain health. And yet I bet you’re still tempted to do it, especially during those endless meetings. Why is multi-tasking so attractive? Because your brain enjoys the constant distraction of switching from one task to another. That makes some types of interruptions, such as notifications, pleasant too. At the same time, it can make you feel important to think that your opinion or your answer to a burning question is absolutely needed right now! No wonder notifications are so difficult to ignore, even when you know perfectly well that ignoring them temporarily is better for your productivity and that there’s really nothing that can’t wait.
There’s a growing audience of Inc.com readers who receive a daily text from me with a self-care or motivational micro-challenge or tip. (Interested in joining? Here’s more information and an invitation to an extended free trial.) Most are entrepreneurs or business leaders and when I asked them about self-interruption recently, dozens got in touch to say they do this to themselves as well. So if, like me, you struggle with this issue, you aren’t alone. Self-interruption is a hard habit to break, but with a few small changes, you can lessen its effects.