How to respond to Interruptions

Many people cite interruptions as a primary challenge to their productivity. And while it is true that a typical office employee gets interrupted frequently during the work day, the real problem with interruptions isn’t the interruption per se – it is what happens to your brain when you get interrupted.

You have a lot to accomplish and a packed day. You’re headed into work and thinking about all that you have to do, and dreading the interruptions, anticipating how they’ll undermine your plans. “Oh, man! I’ve got such a busy day. I hope I don’t get interrupted.” And then, of course, you do.

“Nooooooooo…”

Under these circumstances, the brain naturally perceives the interruption as a threat (“We were afraid this was going to happen!”) And it’s all downhill from there. In the face of threat:

  • blood leaves the thinking part of the brain so your clarity of though is diminished,
  • there’s activation in the emotional part of the brain, feelings/emotions are more likely to hijack your thoughts and direct your actions,
  • primed for threat, all the shadows now start to look like tigers – your overall outlook shades everything darker, more negative, more discouraging,
  • your brain puts up blinders and you become problem-focused instead of solution/action focused, and
  • adrenaline and cortisol are produced, making you feel tense, like you need to punch something, run away, or just veg out on the couch.

Without mindful attention, this is automatic.

But you can prime your brain another way. Instead of starting the day hoping not to get interrupted, start the day by reaffirming your agency. “I’ve got a busy day. When I get interrupted, I’m going to …” You don’t have to stop the interruptions – you need to stop responding to them as a threat. The solution is to have a plan so you feel empowered to respond to the interruption, rather than feeling oppressed by it. Maybe your plan will be to treat each interruption as a stretch break, hear the interrupter, capture their need on your list, and return to task. Maybe your plan will be to communicate with your key coworkers about your tight schedule and ask for their support in holding interruptions.

The power lies not in what you do, but in your conscious autonomy to choose what you are going to do, rather than simply react to the interruption. Identify that you have choices and that you’re going to exercise those choices. This keeps blood in the pre-frontal cortex so that you can think clearly even as unexpected demands arise in the course of a busy day.

What action will you take to keep your brain focus when you get interrupted?

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