The researchers Mark, Gonzalez and Harris at the University of California have conducted a study on how often we get interrupted, what kind of interruptions we are most disturbed by and what we can do to quickly resume working on what we were doing before being interrupted.
Interrupted regarding what we are doing, is a contribution
One interesting discovery they made was that interruptions concerned with another theme, task, errand or project (which they refer to as another ”working sphere”) than that which we are currently working on, distracts us and disrupts our focus. However, ”interruptions” that concern the same working sphere as we are in at the moment are on the contrary often perceived as contributing to what we are doing. More about this in a future post.
Leave it as it is
What I want to focus on right now is how their study indicated that if the material we were working with when interrupted (such as documents, programs, et c) are still in the exact same position as we left them in when we resume the task, it will be significantly easier to take it from where we left off and continue working, and hence the damage done by the interruption will be minimized.
How do we make sure that we find our materials exactly how we left them? Well, if we are talking physical materials and paper documents, we might use different desks or workspaces in our office for different tasks. When we return to the designated table where we left all the materials we were working with when interrupted, everything is exactly where we left it, and we can get up to speed again easily.
… and their digital equivalents
But what about when we work in digital spheres and environments? We can actually use different workspaces in this context as well. On a Mac the function is called ”spaces” and in Windows it is referred to as ”multiple desktops”, and the idea is pretty much the same for both systems. It is easy to create several ”desktops” which we can populate with different materials, apps and programs depending on what we want to work with — and thus create several digital surfaces to work on. If we are interrupted, we just leave the desktop we are working from and open another where we work until we are done, and then return to the first one. Everything is where we left it and we can resume working much faster — regaining focus and motion quickly.
If you want to try working with different tasks on separate surfaces, think about what recurring tasks you have to do once in a while that require your full attention and concentration. These should be good tasks to try the method on, and see for yourself if it makes a difference to your focus and ability to resume work.
The next time you need to do something complicated, use a designated surface or workspace — or try it right away, regardless what your next task is.
If you make it easy to leave all the material you have taken out and need for a particular task when you have to step away for a while, the research mentioned above suggests that the interruption will not necessarily hurt your focus. You will find it easier to get back into what you were doing and will spend more of your time getting things done instead of trying to regain focus and motion.
What is your trick?
How do you get back up to speed after having been interrupted? Share your best idea.