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I Interrupt Your Day to Bring You This Blog on Interruptions

On a miserably cold, gray, and blustery Tuesday afternoon, a block of time miraculously appeared in my schedule when two Zoom calls were unexpectedly cancelled. Both callers had some medical issues to address. Happily, nothing serious.

For many of us, blocking out precious time for our own lives can be difficult. I am reminded of Mayo Angelou, the Nobel Prize–winning poet who deliberately rented out an austere hotel room where she would be unavailable while she drilled into some serious writing.

Periodically, like I did that afternoon, you may find an island of solitude, an oasis, where you are able to work interrupted. Maybe you tackled the great American novel, or got into the subtleties of filing income taxes, or perhaps you finally filled out the draconian forms for graduate school admission. Some of you might have carved out that time to practice for your next piano recital or prepare lines for an audition for the community theater.

How is it we can block time and be productive? And other times we just never seem to get anything done considering the multiple interruptions?

Let me recommend a book by Johann Hari titled Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention—and How to Think Deeply Again. After 49 pages I was hooked and some previous facts and figures were reinforced. Let me summarize:

  • Following an interruption it will take on average 23 minutes to get back into the same state of focus.

  • The average American spends 3 hours and 15 minutes a day on their screens. Phones, computers, tablets, GPS.

  • We touch our phones 2,617 times every 24 hours. Startling number.

  • In 1986 we were bombarded with the equivalent of 40 newspapers of information every day. By 2007, that figure was the equivalent of 174 newspapers per day. I don’t want to think about that number today. Just those annoying pop-up notifications on your phone are enough to make take your attention away.

  • Juggling emails and text messages will cause a drop in the IQ of workers by an average of 10 points. Facetiously, the author suggests that you are “better off getting stoned at your desk than checking your texts and Facebook messages a lot.” Depending on the laws in your state, you may not want to try this.

  • The average CEO of a Fortune 500 company gets just 28 uninterrupted minutes a day. Happily, you and I are not CEOs.

  • Multitasking is a myth. It is simply not true. What we are actually doing is toggling back and forth between tasks, which means we will spend 50% longer to get the job done, will have 50% more errors, and will have about 50% less recall for factual material. So you won’t be on Jeopardy! anytime soon.

Now what about me and my sacred time to get stuff done? Well the best laid plans and you know the rest simply did not work and here’s what happened.

I had deliberately put my cell phone in the garage but we do have a landline. Within 15 minutes of my “sabbatical from the screen,” a contractor left a voicemail about replacing some contract work. He insisted on a return call within 20 minutes.

About 8 minutes later our two dogs, one of whom is blind, went ballistic when a delivery person repeatedly rang the doorbell to leave a box of bread, which we had purchased. Yes, bread, not the document for the cure for cancer. Or the mathematics of sending a rocket to Mars. Nothing urgent. Except to the delivery driver.

The clothes washer was not carefully balanced and after about 30 minutes, the washer and the entire house convulsively shook until I repositioned the clothes. Another 10 minutes were shot.

And I could go on and on about the myriad carnivorous disruptions that devoured my self-imposed isolation.

So even for a Luddite, the take-home message is crystal clear. When the stakes are high, when serious work must be addressed and reconciled, when time is at a premium as it always is, and when our energy and focus is marginal at best, we cannot simply stay in our caves but seriously need to isolate, to be selectively unavailable, and to withdraw, being mindful of our personal responsibilities.

Follow Dr. Ed on Instagram @AskDoctorEd for a daily message about stress and life.

Image from Shutterstock.

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