Manage & Minimize Interruptions

Stop letting interruptions steal 2 hrs 27 mins/day with these research-backed strategies

Interrupted is the state of the modern worker. Most people are interrupted every 3-10 minutes by other people through a variety of ways (the drop-by, email, instant messages). Two trends have made this worse and will continue to:
  1. Technology has made us instantly available to a much wider range of people (43% of workers use instant messaging on the job, sending almost 14 billion messages every day)
  2. More and more companies are opting for open office layouts (70% of people now work in cubicles or open office layouts and coincidentally, 70% of knowledge workers believe office noise hurts their productivity)

It's bad enough that every time we yield to an interruption, we are agreeing to do something other than what we thought was our highest priority, but the time spent on the 'interrupter task' isn't the only cost of interruptions:
  • Interruptions create significant switching costs (switching tasks midway through a task increases the amount of time it takes to complete the original task and interrupter task by 15%)
  • When people experience interruptions, they make more errors (one study showed that even a 2.8-second interruption doubled error rates)
  • People who are interrupted become tired (workers who experience frequent interruptions report 9% higher rates of exhaustion and 4% higher physical ailments)

Interruptions may feel like an inevitable part of your day. You're not alone. Almost 75% of respondents to one survey said, "The day seems to fly by and I wonder, 'did I accomplish anything today?'" The reality is, though, that we have more control over how many interruptions we receive and how we respond to them than you may think. Learn these research-backed strategies and you'll take back control of your work day.

Still not convinced? Take your time reading through the details of our time-savings calculations below in the research and analysis section.

"It reminded me to push back - I don't have to answer every email instantly! I realized that by responding immediately to half of my interruptions and delaying another half, I can avoid training my interrupters to expect an immediate response."

- Executive Assistant, Australian Communications and Media Authority

"Good tactical suggestions!"

- Consultant, Bain & Company

"This lesson was great for pointing out all the opportunities I miss to help myself not be interrupted."

- Fellow, Harvard Kennedy School of Government (Government Performance Lab)



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RESEARCH & ANALYSIS: 2 hour 27 minute/day time-saving opportunity

Before describing how much time can be saved using research-backed strategies to manage & minimize interruptions, we need to share our calculation of how much time is loss due to interruptions each day: 164 mins/day

  • We reviewed 7 different studies and surveys to calculate the base amount of time lost to interruptions. The median is 126 mins/day, though the studies ranged from 56.4 to 1,297 mins/day (or 21 hours/day).[1] We chose to use 158 mins/day because the study description best fit with the interruptions discussed here.
  • People who face frequent interruptions also experience a 9% higher exhaustion rate.[2] When we are exhausted, we make 21% more errors.[3]
  • We also make more errors in the moment when we are interrupted. In one study, people who experienced a 2.8-second interruption, made twice the number of errors as those who were not interrupted. When the interruption was increased to 4.5 seconds, the error rate grew to triple the control scenario.[4] The average person makes 118 mistakes/year or an error every 1.5 days.[5] Since interruptions increase error rates by 2.5 times on average and exhaustion increases error rates by another 2% (21% times 9%), we find that if we didn’t experience interruptions, we could reduce our errors to 46 per year, saving us 5.8 mins/day
  • In total, interruptions cost the average person 131.8 mins/day (126 plus 5.8)

#1 – Not using some kind of physical ‘do not disturb’ indicator to ward off in-person interruptions = 47 mins/day

  • In one study, researchers created a light that would signal to other workers when someone was busy. During the study, this light reduced in-person interruptions by 46%[6]
  • Roughly 64% of people say that in-person (i.e., “face-to-face”) interruptions are the most common form of interruption.[7] We use this as a proxy to assume that 64% of interruptions are face-to-face.
  • We calculate that 46% savings on 64% of the interruption time would be 46.5 mins/day

#2 – Responding to instant messages immediately = 36 mins/day

  • We receive an average of 29.7 instant messages (IMs) per day[14]
  • We respond to 71% of them immediately (i.e., within 15 seconds) – or 21/day[14]
  • 45% of people think IM makes them more productive,[8] which we’ll use as a proxy for the percent of IMs that are productive, meaning 55% of IMs that we respond to immediately are not a productive use of time
  • After responding to an IM, it takes us an average of 8 mins to return to the application we were using to complete the original task at the time of the interruption[14]
  • To combat this loss of time, we can sign out of IM applications or change our status to ‘Do not disturb.’ However, we likely don’t want to do this all the time. It likely makes sense to turn off IM alerts during the 39% of the time, when we’re doing “productive content creation” and “thinking and reflecting”[13]
  • We have the opportunity to save 35.8 mins/day by disabling IM alerts during the 39% of the day when it would be appropriate (21 IMs/day x 55% not productive x 8 mins x 39% of time when makes sense to disable alerts)

#3 – Not creating a plan for resuming your work after the interruption = 28 mins/day

  • We experience an interruption every 11.25 mins or 50.1 times/day12[9,12]
  • When we yield to an interruption and switch tasks, we experience a switching cost of 64 seconds both when we switch to the interrupter task and when we switch back costing us 2.1 mins/interruption[10]
  • By taking roughly one minute to develop a plan for resuming our work after we deal with the interruption, we can cut our switching costs significantly (by an estimated 50%)[11]
  • This enables us to save a little over half a minute per interruption or 28.4 mins/day

#4 – Not physically isolating ourselves from in-person and environmental distractions = 18 mins/day

  • Employees in cubicles are interrupted 29% more than those in private offices[12]
  • Most people spend 51% of their non-interruption work time doing work that would be well-suited for a private, quite workspace (i.e., “productive content creation” and “thinking and reflecting”)[13]
  • While it’s unlikely that all that time could be spent in a private office, we assume that 75% would benefit from a private workspace
  • We calculate that people could reduce interruptions by 29% on 39% of their time (51% times 75%), amounting to savings of 18.3 mins/day

#5 – Not pushing back on interruptions to delay them or avoid indulging in them = 11 mins/day

  • A third of people who spoke to their boss about challenges they were facing because of interruptions “found some sort of resolution.”[7] Note: This is likely a conservative estimate since these people haven’t necessarily been trained to push back effectively.
  • People could apply the push back approach in the 59% of interruptions still unresolved after the previously mentioned strategies have been deployed (11% resolved by physical isolation, 30% to a ‘do not disturb’ indicator)
  • We calculate savings in 33% of situations on 59% of interruptions, resulting in 11.1 mins/day

#6 – Keeping email notifications on and responding to email immediately = 7 mins/day

  • People are interrupted by email notifications an average of 4.3 times per hour or 40.2 times/day.[14] This is conservative as other studies suggest we are interrupted by email notifications as much as 10.2 times/hour.
  • We respond to 40.8% of email notifications immediately (i.e., within 15 seconds)[14]
  • After responding to an email notification, it takes us an average of 9.6 mins to return to the application we were using to complete the original task at the time of the interruption[14]
  • An immediate response makes sense in some cases, since 12% of all emails and as a result, likely 29% of the emails we respond to immediately demand a response within 5 mins, so responding to them wastes us no time[15]
  • On the other 71% of emails we respond to immediately, we spend 110.7 mins/day working to resume our higher priority work after being interrupted by the alert
  • We don’t necessarily lose all of this time because doing a lower priority item before a higher priority one only loses us time if we miss a deadline or end up creating idle time for ourselves
  • Given we work on ~54 tasks on any given day[16] and the average deadline for a task is 8.9 days,[17] we have nearly 6 tasks due every day
  • By spending 110.7 mins/day on non-urgent email alerts, we increase the likelihood that we will miss the deadlines for these 6 tasks by 20% (i.e., that is how much less time we have to complete our work)
  • On average, missing a single deadline costs us 5.7 mins/day[17]
  • By multiplying the time we lose on a deadline (5.7) by the number of deadlines we have each day (6) by the increased chance of missing a deadline (20%), we calculate an opportunity to save 6.7 mins/day


  1. List of studies reporting time loss on interruptions:
    1. Richtel, Matt. “Lost in E-Mail, Tech Firms Face Self-Made Beast.” New York Times (Jun 2008) -- 28% of workday is loss to “interruptions by things that aren’t urgent or important…
    2. Bray, David A., “Information Pollution, Knowledge Overload, Limited Attention Spans, and Our Responsibilities as IS Professionals.” Global Information Technology Management Association (GITMA) World Conference (Jun 2008) – “average knowledge worker loses 2.1 hours a day to interruptions associated with multi-tasking”
    3. Mark, G., Gudith, D., and Klocke, U. “The Cost of Interrupted Work: More Speed and Stress.” / Pattison, Kermit. “Worker, Interrupted: The Cost of Task Switching.” Fast Company (Jul 2008) – We are interrupted every 10 mins and “it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to the task” after an interruption
    4. Shellenbarger, Sue. “The Biggest Office Interruptions Are...Wall Street Journal (Sep 2013) – We experience interruptions every 12.5 mins
    5. Iqbal, S. T., & Horvitz, E. (2007). “Disruption and recovery of computing tasks.” Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems – CHI ’07 – We lose 10% of our working time on interruptions
    6. Gurvich, Itai and O'Leary, Kevin and Wang, Lu and Van Mieghem, Jan A., “Collaboration, Interruptions and Changeover Times: Workflow Model and Empirical Study of Hospitalist Charting.” (May 2018) – Hospitalists spend 20% of their total processing time on interruptions
    7. Oshagbemi, Titus. “Management development and managers’ use of their time.” Journal of Management Development, Vol. 14 No. 8 (1995) – Managers spend an average of 16% of their time on unscheduled meetings
    8. Sykes, Edward. “Interruptions in the workplace: A case study to reduce their effects.” International Journal of Information Management. Vol. 31, Issue 4, Pages 385-394 (Aug 2011) – “Senior developers spend 5.7 hrs on average on 120 interruption tasks per day”
  2. Lin, B., Kain, J., and Fritz, C. “Don’t Interrupt Me! An Examination of the Relationship Between Intrusions at Work and Employee Strain.” International Journal of Stress Management. Vol. 20, No. 2, Pages 77-94 (Jan 2013).
  3. Tanaka M, Ishii A, Watanabe Y. “Effects of Mental Fatigue on Brain Activity and Cognitive Performance: A Magnetoencephalography Study.” Anat Physiol S4:002. (2015).
  4. M. Altmann, Erik & Gregory Trafton, J & Hambrick, Zach. (2017). “Effects of Interruption Length on Procedural Errors.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied. 23. 10.1037/xap0000117.
  5. Becker, Samuel. “The Average American Worker Makes 118 Mistakes Per Year, and These Are the Most Common.” Money & Career (Nov 2017).
  6. Züger, Manuela, Christopher S. Corley, André N. Meyer, Boyang Li, Thomas Fritz, David C. Shepherd, Vinay Augustine, Patrick Francis, Nicholas A. Kraft and Will Snipes. “Reducing Interruptions at Work: A Large-Scale Field Study of FlowLight.” CHI (2017).
  7. MacKay, Jory. “Managing interruptions at work: What we learned surveying hundreds of RescueTime users about their worst distractions.” RescueTime (May 2018).
  8. Golden, Ryan and Bolden-Barrett, Valerie. “Poll: 43% of employees use instant messaging tools on the job.” HR Dive (Jun 2017).
  9. Mark, G., Gudith, D., and Klocke, U. “The Cost of Interrupted Work: More Speed and Stress.” / Pattison, Kermit. “Worker, Interrupted: The Cost of Task Switching.” Fast Company (Jul 2008).
  10. Jackson, T., R. Dawson, D. Wilson. 2001b. The cost of email interruption. J. Systems Inform. Tech. 5(1) 81–92.
  11. Kelley, Peter. “Task interrupted: A plan for returning helps you move on.” University of Washington News (Jan 2018).
  12. Shellenbarger, Sue. “The Biggest Office Interruptions Are...Wall Street Journal (Sep 2013).
  13. Richtel, Matt. “Lost in E-Mail, Tech Firms Face Self-Made Beast.” New York Times (Jun 2008).
  14. Iqbal, Shamsi and Horvitz, Eric. “Disruption and Recovery of Computing Tasks: Field Study, Analysis, and Directions.” CHI (Apr 2007).
  15. Ariely, Dan. “Why you should turn off push notifications right now.” Wired (Dec 2016).
  16. Pattison, Kermit. “Worker, Interrupted: The Cost of Task Switching.” Fast Company (Jul 2008).
  17. Wilcox, K., Laran, J., Stephen, A. T., Zubcsek, P. P. “How Being Busy Can Increase Motivation and Reduce Task Completion Time.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2016).

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