Health economist, interrupted

4 min read
First Published: 
Jan 2012

Key Learnings contained in this article:

The statistics are staggering. According to one study, the average office worker is interrupted every 11 minutes and takes 25 minutes to return to the original task. Another estimate is that distractions swallow up a whopping 28% of the typical workday.

In the face of a daily onslaught of email, phone calls, instant messages, text messages, beeping pagers, and colleagues poking their head around the door, how can a beleaguered health economist stay productive?

First of all, keep in mind that not all interruptions are bad news. Some bring essential information or provide a brief mental break that lets you return to the problem at hand with a fresh perspective. Others, like a co-worker with a question that urgently needs answering, contribute to the greater productivity of the organisation, even if it throws your own schedule awry.

There’s no doubt, though, that many interruptions wreak havoc, derailing your train of thought and distracting you from important tasks. Here’s how to sidestep as many as possible and minimise the impact of the ones you can’t avoid:

  • Set your phone to voice mail, close your door (if you have one), and turn off your email alert. According to one study, ringing telephones and pinging emails can take 10 points of your functioning IQ – more than double the drop caused by smoking marijuana.
  • Schedule concentration-heavy work – anything involving complex mental models, dozens of details, or the planning stages of a project – when or where you’re least likely to be disturbed. Come in early, stay late, or arrange to work from home.
  • Make use of instant messaging. Although it may seem counterintuitive to give colleagues yet another way to contact you, researchers have found it offers a less disruptive way to communicate than phone calls, email, or face-to-face conversations, in part because it lets you signal when you are and aren’t available.
  • The biggest cost of interruptions is the time it takes to reconstruct your earlier train of thought. Before you switch gears, take a moment to jot down what you’re doing. As you’re working, it’s also helpful to create project outlines, document your sources, and make a note of any assumptions: after a break, you’ll be able to pick up the threads more quickly.
  • Recognise that the biggest culprit may be staring you in the mirror. According to one researcher, 44% of interruptions are self-initiated. Consider setting limits on how frequently you check email, send text messages, or peek at your favourite blog.
  • Reduce the need for interruptions. Communicate clearly the first time round, so that people aren’t forced to bother you for additional details or clarifications.
  • Remember that you can’t make yourself unavailable all the time. When you switch your phone to voice mail or hang that “do not disturb” sign on the office door, let your co-workers know when you will be free to answer questions, put out fires, or discuss that upcoming project.

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Julie Stauffer
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