Updated: Jan 26
Overcoming Interruptions While Working from Home
Many who now find themselves working from home are faced with new challenges which often entail balancing family, personal, and work responsibilities all at the same time. Although there are interruptions no matter where workers gather, these new circumstances seem to involve even more interruptions than usual. Whether a roommate, spouse, children, or even a pet is to blame, those working from home must acclimate. The good news is that science tells us that workers will adapt. However, that takes time and the development of methods that work for everyone with their specific variables takes adaptability and patience. After reviewing some of the science, this article will make a few suggestions for adapting and overcoming as quickly as possible.
A Little Research to Consider
Remote workers may need to get creative if they require solid uninterrupted time. Common, and unpopular, methods entail getting up earlier or staying up later when the household is mostly asleep. Of course, that may not be an option for some. For those who wish to brave the constant interruptions that come with trying to work and tend to a family during business hours, consider an article from the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience that discusses the impact of interruptions that are not related to the task at hand. Interruptions do indeed impact working memory, the information needed to maintain relevant information during task-irrelevant interruptions, however, was that working memory was recovered by the end of the trial (Hakim, Feldmann-Wüstefel, & Vogel, 2020). In addition, how the brain responds to irrelevant interruptions is also influenced by the task content itself. So, in other words, workers may get used to the interruptions, and based on the tasks that are being performed the interruptions may not impact quite so detrimentally.
Brazzolotto and Michael (2019) investigated exactly how harmful interruptions are and what factors can mitigate their effects. Interruptions were divided into simple and complex interruptions where complex interruptions took longer to recover from. In addition, the frequency of interruptions also influenced recovery speed. The authors indicate that when interrupted, the mind will be driven by the most important goal, and when the interruption occurs the primary task (PT) must be suspended for the interrupting task (IT). Eventually the primary task motivation to complete the goal will be deactivated, but “strategies of rehearsal during the interrupting task can prevent its deactivation (Brazzolotto and Michael, 2019)”. Essentially, thinking about how and when to resume the primary task keeps the task from becoming inactive in the mind.
Suggestions to Ease the Pain of Interruptions
Preparing for predictable interruptions.
Some interruptions are foreseeable to some extent. Working from home may mean that one is responsible for making meals, assisting with homeschool activities, or a seemingly limitless array of responsibilities. Since science advises that any interruption, even a little one, makes an impact foreseeing and avoiding whatever possible is an advantage. Prepping easy meals and getting responsibilities out of the way first may ease some of the distractions. Time management can be invaluable in eking out an extra hour out of the day. Try turning off the radio, TV, or cell phone - the improvement in efficiency may be surprising.
Communication is key.
Sure, avoid the distractions that are predictable, easy enough. Now, what about the ones that aren’t so easy to plan for? Some individuals are more sensitive than others when it comes to being interrupted. Communication is essential when dealing with family members and others that share one’s living space. If they are old enough to have a conversation and understand try sitting down and explaining the time that is needed and why. It seems simple, but many overlook this step. Don’t stop at, “I’m working”. Explain in more detail, especially for children. Provide some minutiae, maybe even garnish some interest. Sometimes interruptions are caused by other members simply being bored or feeling isolated themselves. Take a look at what specifically is causing the interruptions.
The little ones that simply do not understand. Definitely more challenging, frustrating, and perhaps even maddening. Mindfulness techniques can help here. When the rage of being interrupted for the 20th time swells, disconnect from what you are doing, even for a few seconds clear your mind, focus on your breath, and remember what is important. If that is not successful, try some headphones. There is no shame is sitting in the bathroom with the door locked, putting in some headphones, and trying to stay sane for the duration of a song or two. It may be humorous to picture, but the relief is real.
Make a point to keep the task in mind.
Remember the literature mentioned above, when interrupted keep in mind the project that needs to be resumed, how it will be resumed, and if possible, continue working on the issue mentally. While the project may continue looming in the subconscious, practicing that form of mindfulness forces the project to remain active. George A. Miller, an American psychologist, introduced the idea that keeping something in your mind for at least 30 seconds helps the mind push it from short-term memory into long-term memory (Explorable, 2011). Although there may be some debate about this aging data, the fact remains that keeping a task active in the mind will allow the individual to return to the task as soon as possible.
Bullet journaling can be an impressive mix of creative outlets and daily planning. There are beautiful, masterpieces of bullet journal delight that make even the most artistic jealous, but that is not necessary. The layout can be quite simple and this tool can be incredibly useful in determining when the primary task can resume. Bixby, Cortana, and Google may be convenient but creating something is satisfying, and using manual dexterity means the task is more likely to be remembered. Try a layout that has the date across the top and the hours of the day down the side, like an agenda.
Working from home may not be for everyone if there is a choice involved, but there are many tips and tricks that can make it more palatable and hopefully even enjoyable. The tactics used must account for the specific responsibilities, complexity and frequency of interruptions, and the nature of the work being performed, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
Brazzolotto, P., & Michael, G. A. (2019). Interrupting an e-mail search: Influence of the complexity and the timing of the interruption. Cognition, Brain, Behavior, 23(2), 135–153. https://doi.org/10.24193/cbb.2019.23.08
Explorable.com (Apr 13, 2011). Short-Term Memory. Retrieved May 13, 2020 from Explorable.com: https://explorable.com/short-term-memory
Hakim, N., Feldmann-Wüstefeld, T., Awh, E., & Vogel, E. K. (2020). Perturbing Neural Representations of Working Memory with Task-irrelevant Interruption. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 32(3), 558–569. https://doi.org/10.1162/jocn_a_01481