The ability to get your mind swiftly back on the project at hand is the next best thing to not being interrupted in the first place.
4 min read
Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.
A single interruption can turn a productive groove into a frustrating series of stops and starts. According to researchers at the University of California, Irvine, people take an average of more than 23 minutes to resume a task after being interrupted.
Those distractions add up: Take a task that should last one hour, and sprinkle in a new distraction every 30 minutes. Something that should have been finished quickly could turn into an all-day headache.
Wasted time on interruptions can destroy a productive workday. Entrepreneurs, freelancers and business leaders have to learn how to recognize their common distractions and develop systems to keep themselves on track.
The cost of distraction
Different groups deal with different types of interruptions. People who work alone, like freelancers, can be their own worst enemies. Distractions like social media, household chores and client communications all offer different types of temptation. Stoppig to clean the living room sounds reasonable but every time a freelancer stops focusing on a project is that much longer before the project is completed. Interruptions quickly become expensive when time is money.
Entrepreneurs and small business owners face different challenges. Because they have the final word on everything their companies do, their days are filled with questions, meetings and interruptions from well-meaning employees. It’s hard enough to find five minutes to focus, but a whole uninterrupted hour? That’s almost unheard of.
Members of both groups must learn to overcome frequent interruptions to accomplish anything. That’s easier said than done, but with a few strategies and the right mindset, freelancers and entrepreneurs can move past interruptions and get back to work. Use these tips to regain focus quickly after interruptions:
Related: 3 Ways to End Technology Distraction
Don’t rush back in.
If you jump back to your task immediately after the interruption, your mind won’t keep up. Rather than try to get back in the zone as quickly as possible, take a couple of minutes to regain your composure before you look at what you were doing.
This might feel like wasted time, but it’s not. Allow yourself to sit for a moment thinking about the task in front of you. What do you need to accomplish by finishing this project? What is your strategy for doing so? Which part of the project is the highest priority, and how should you approach it?
By asking these questions, you reorient your mind to the task at hand and greatly reduce how much time it takes to regain full focus.
Create a landmark.
When you’re in the middle of something, you assume you'll remember everything when you return. The information seems so vital, so obvious, that there’s no way you could possibly forget. Then, you return from the interruption with no idea where all your great ideas went.
Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you'll remember anything (much less everything). Instead, create a short note to outline what you just finished and where you plan to go next. You don’t need to spend 10 minutes creating a full outline while someone waits at your desk — just a few seconds to jot down where your thoughts are headed. When you return, you can use your quick notes to get back on task quickly to ensure you don’t lose your valuable ideas.
Shut the door.
When the distractions won’t stop coming, shut down communications until you finish the task at hand. Even in an office with an open-door policy, it’s normal for people to close themselves off to attend meetings and take phone calls. What’s wrong with a little time-out to finish important work?
You can retain your approachable charm without sacrificing your productivity in the bargain. Get a “Do Not Disturb” sign (or perhaps something a little less direct) to place on your office door when you need to focus. Reserve this solution for situations when you will get the most from your uninterrupted time. And if you're feeling guilty as a business leader, remember that your time is ultimately the most expensive for the company to lose.
Interruptions are a natural part of work life, but they don’t have to spell the end of your productive streak. The more you practice recovery from interruptions, the more productive your workdays will become.