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The Causes of Overwork, Part 2

Thursday, March 24, 2011 by Slaughter Development

The economy may be slowly rebounding, but that’s no reason to be exhausted. Here’s part two of The Causes of Overwork.

Last time, we covered unreasonable expectations. That was number one on the list of workplace issues that lead to frustration, exhaustion and collapse:

  1. Unreasonable expectations - You are asked to do things which are just not possible.
  2. Unnecessary interruptions - You are being bugged by people for things that just aren’t worth breaking your concentration.
  3. Inadequate skill - you don’t have the training or ability to do assigned tasks.

Number two, “unnecessary interruptions” may be the source of most explosive outbursts at the office. You are bearing down on a deadline, racing to finish a critical task before heading to the next meeting or going to pick up the kids, and someone comes into taps you on the shoulder just to say hello. At times like these, you may be wondering what a jury would say given the circumstances. Shouldn’t you have the chance to do professional work without being bothered?

It might seem like interruptions are just a part of life. Although annoying, do a few minutes of banter here and there really add up to something that would cause overwork? You probably know the answer from personal experience: yes, absolutely!

We’ve written about workplace interruptions many times before on The Methodology Blog. This chart, adapted from work done by researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, help explains why interruptions are so destructive to workflow:

As we move up and to the right on the diagram, we need more and more concentration. Interruption forces us to move rapidly from one side to the other, According to multiple studies, it can take as long as thirty minutes to recover! A few brief interjections, random noises or loud conversations can destroy an entire workday.

That’s not to say that all interruptions are bad. Sometimes, the office really is on fire. Some of us do work in environments where minutes or even seconds count. Thankfully, emergency services personnel can be interrupted to save lives, even if they are on a break. But for most of us, most of the time, interruptions are simply unnecessary.

To change the culture in your office, use a two-fold strategy:

1. Train Others By Modeling Good Interruption Behavior

If the phone rings and you know you don’t have time to answer it, let it go to voicemail! In fact, you can even reply to the caller with a quick email message:

To: Bob Smith
Subject: Your phone call at 2:45PM, 15-Feb
Bob — I saw your name on the caller ID, but I’m in the middle of a huge project on a major deadline. If your need is urgent, feel free to ring me again and I’ll pick up. Otherwise, do you want to email me your request or schedule time for a meeting later this week? Thanks! -Frances

If a coworkers want you join in an interruption, resist. Consider this script:

Marcus: Hey, let’s see if Sally wants to grab a cup of coffee.
You: It looks like she’s really busy with that report. Why don’t we bring her a cup instead?

Finally, if you must jump in and mess with someone else’s workflow, apologize:

You: Lou, I am sorry to interrupt you. I know what you are working on is important, but the client is about to go into a major meeting and has a question only you can answer. Will you pick up line three?

2. Push Back on Interruptions by Over Engaging

If people interrupt you, the temptation is to just begrudge and accept it. This doesn’t work, because you only train them believe that interruptions are acceptable. Another technique is to firmly let them them know that you are busy. But this can be intimidating and hurtful to others. So instead, try over engaging:

Bobbi: Hey there, ready for weekend?
You: You know, actually I am excited. I’ve got big plans to clean the bathroom with this new, eco-friendly cleaner I got from my aunt Flo. I know that sounds crazy, but she swears by it. You wanna go to the break room and have a snack? I’ll tell you all about it.
Bobbi: Uh…actually, I gotta wrap up some emails.
You: No problem.

It might feel a little odd to over-engage at first, but by doing so you are actually training other people to know that interruptions mean serious business. And if they do want to go have that conversation about your housecleaning project, you can use the rapport to explain the issue:

Bobbi: Fascinating. I look forward to hearing about how the cleaning project goes!
You: Thanks. You know I appreciate the break, but maybe we should put this on our calendars in the future! Same time next Friday work for you?

Unnecessary interruptions lead to overwork, not just because of lost time but lost concentration. Model smarter behavior and train your colleagues to be smarter with their use of time. Learn more from Slaughter Development today!

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Like this post? Here are some related entries from The Methodology Blog you might enjoy:

The Causes of Overwork, Part 1 - If you’re working too hard, putting in too many hours and not getting enough sleep, there is certainly a culprit. In fact, overwork is caused by at least one of exactly three reasons.
Read on »
The Causes of Overwork, Part 3 - It’s time for the final installment in our three part series about why people are overworked. In this episode, we cover the most shameful and difficult factor of all.
Read on »
Great Workers Surf On The Job - We all know that employees at work should be working. But according to a new study, those who spend a bit of time at the office goofing around online are actually more productive than their colleagues. Read on »
Want to learn more? Register now for the 2011 Productivity Series

One Response to “The Causes of Overwork, Part 2”

  1. Marla Says:

    My favorite way to work around unnecessary interruptions was to respond to my co-worker with something like this: “Thanks for stopping by. I’m in the middle of something, but I can stop by to chat for a little while at 11:00.” or “I plan on having lunch at 1:00, so if you want to have lunch together, that would be great.”

    I make a point to let people know that their friendship is valuable and instead of saying “NO” in one way or the other, I emphasize what I can do.

    Another solution would be to have a “Do Not Disturb” sign over a tiny dry erase board like the ones used on dorm room doors-so that someone would know to leave a message that way. I thought about doing that, but I had another way that worked…

    I had people try to talk to me WHILE I was on the phone. (These were obviously NOT personal calls!!!) I kept a notepad on my desk with a pen clipped to it so they could write their message since I can’t intently listen to a phone call and someone next to me at the same time. (Honestly, who can???)

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