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3 Ways to Bounce Back After a Work Interruption

Use time management strategies to better manage competing demands

Hands working on a desk.

We’ve all been there. There’s a task to complete and then an email pops into the inbox, a colleague has a question, or there’s a quick bit of pressing work to knock out. But when you get back to what you had been working on, it’s a struggle to get that effort started again.

research study at the University of California at Irvine found that, on average, it takes around 23 minutes for most workers to get back on task after an interruption.

Emily Wagner, manager of surgical pathology and autopsy pathology teams at Duke University Hospital can appreciate the challenge of bouncing back from an interruption. She oversees around 24 staff members in multiple labs, handling human resources and supply needs. She also handles questions and service requests from caregivers, meaning that interruptions are a major part of her daily routine.

“In a perfect world, there are all sorts of things you’d like to get done,” Wagner said. “But there’s nothing controlled about this environment, as much as we’d like it to be.” 

Wagner recently took part in the Managing Multiple Priorities course taught by Duke Learning & Organization Development (L&OD). While interruptions may be part of a work day for many of us, here are some time management strategies from the course that are used by Wagner and others to keep disruptions from derailing a day.

Leave Landmarks

Joy Birmingham, assistant director for Duke Learning & Organization Development, teaches the Managing Multiple Priorities Course. Photo courtesy of Joy Birmingham.Jumping from one task to another is something that participants in Joy Birmingham’s Managing Multiple Priorities course likely know a lot about. Figuring out how to transition effectively between tasks is something Birmingham, assistant director for Learning & Organization Development, focuses on in her class.

One easy tip that she passes along is that when something pops up that pulls you away from a task, leave yourself a clue, or landmark, to help yourself get back on task once you return. Birmingham suggested quickly typing the last thought you had before being interrupted, or jotting down the problem you were trying to solve, or the next step you were going to take on a task. Any small reminder can make restarting work easier.

“I think about the brain like a filing cabinet,” Birmingham said. “If you open a drawer and find the right files, then you start looking through them and somebody interrupts me, I can’t easily get back to that level of thinking unless I tell myself ‘I’m in this drawer, in this file, working on this task.”

Know What Can Wait

Emily WagnerIt’s important to remember that not every interruption has to make you stop working on your original task.

Emily Wagner said that she’ll often get approached by hospital colleagues to help with a task. While there are plenty of situations that will demand her attention right away, if a request doesn’t need to be done immediately, or if she’s working on a more pressing task, she’ll write down the request on a notepad she always keeps handy.

“I’m always making quick notes which I will go back and organize later,” Wagner said. “If somebody sticks their head into my office and says we’re out of something, and it’s not something I can deal with at the moment, I’ll just put it down on the list and get back to it at a designated time.”

Birmingham said writing down non-urgent requests, or other tasks that pop into your head, instead of tackling them right away, and drawing your attention away from what you’re doing, is a good way to cut down on interruptions and keep track of everything that you need to get to.

“Sometimes, I’ll start thinking about a task and I’ve interrupted myself,” Birmingham said. “But if I just write it down, I don’t have to do it right then, but I can put it aside and keep working on whatever I was working on.”

Make the Transition

Jennifer Ahern-Dodson, associate professor of the practice for the Thompson Writing Program and founder of Duke’s Faculty Write Program, helps faculty members keep writing projects moving forward. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Ahern-Dodson.Jennifer Ahern-Dodson, associate professor of the practice for the Thompson Writing Program and founder of Duke’s Faculty Write Program, often works with faculty members who are trying to balance major writing projects with other commitments.

“I get to work with all kinds of writers, and all kinds of interruptions,” Ahern-Dodson said. “Someone who is on a tenure track is going to have different kinds of interruptions than a department chair or senior administrator. But they all have interruptions.”

One way Ahern-Dodson suggests people regain focus after an interruption is to take a moment of deliberate transition to clear the mind. If you’ve had to stop one task in order to respond to an email or do something online, be deliberate about closing your email or web browsers afterward. Perhaps get up from your chair and move around. That way, when you sit back down to tend to the original task, your mind will be more ready to tackle it.

“I think one of the reasons why it might take so long to refocus is that we’re not closing the loop on the previous thing that we did,” Ahern-Dodson said. “We can’t begin the next thing because we haven’t stopped thinking about the last thing.”

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