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Feeling Used Up at the End of the Day? This Might be Why. 

Published on February 22, 2023.

The COVID-19 pandemic changed the way we work, whether in the office or at home, and faculty and staff face increased interruptions. This can contribute to lower productivity, lower quality of work, decreased focus, and heightened stress levels. 

Disruptions of focus

A recent study focused on interruptions (Leroy et al., 2021) states that not all interruptions are created equal, they differ by type and by source. Depending on the working arrangements, the source of interruptions can be work or nonwork-related. The authors differentiate between the following types of interruptions: 

  • Intrusions - someone demands your attention right away on something not related to your task, but you'd rather keep doing what you were already working on. E.g., a colleague stopping by your desk to chat, a phone call you have to take or the plumber arrives to fix the sink. These scenarios require you to set down your current work and address the issue.

  • Distractions - something catches your attention, even though it does not require a shift of focus. E.g., overhearing a conversation at work, seeing a non-urgent notification on your phone that you are tempted to click or the clanking of the garbage truck as it empties bins on its weekly route.

  • Breaks - intentional pause to rest and recharge. E.g., a walk or a scheduled lunch.

  • Multitasking - balancing several tasks at the same time. E.g., responding to a few emails while on a Zoom call or listening to your child share their day while checking your to-do list.

  • Surprises – when something unexpected comes up, and you need to address it before you can keep working. E.g., technical difficulties, feedback that impacts the project you’ve been working on.

With the types of interruptions increasing, work time has never been so fragmented, leading to lost productivity and exhaustion. With the exception of breaks, these are all unwanted interruptions that switch our attention. So what are some key strategies to minimize unwanted interruptions and reduce the risk of potential burnout?

Minimizing unwanted interruptions

  1. Set and model boundaries. Communicate your availability and set boundaries both for colleagues and for family, and set expectations on when it’s okay to approach you (or google-chat with you) with questions or requests. If it makes sense, use technology to indicate your availability, like auto-replies, or set status in gchat. (Note: Supervisors set the tone and model boundaries for their team even if they are not consciously trying. A supervisor with positive practices creates clear expectations through their words and actions and allows others to do the same.)

  2. Prioritize. Prioritize your tasks and use a calendar to schedule the most important tasks that need to be accomplished. (For podcast listeners, we recommend Ten Percent Happier, Episode #456: Time Management for Mortals with Oliver Burkeman)

  3. Limit unwanted technology. It can be as simple as turning off notifications on your devices, using noise-canceling headphones, pausing your inbox, or only checking your inbox during a certain time. Learning more about the features of your technology can help you discover what does and does not work for you.

  4. Set a dedicated workspace. If working from home, designate a specific area in your home as your workspace, and make it clear that you are not to be disturbed when you are in this area. If your home workspace is a central location such as a kitchen table, establish a visual cue for others that you are not available such as wearing headphones or sitting at the table.

  5. Take breaks. This might be counter-intuitive, since breaks are also interruptions, but breaks let you switch your attention intentionally to rest and recharge. Avoid more screens and social media during the break and strive to be in the moment by going for a short walk, stepping outside to feel the sunshine on your face, or giving your pets some attention. If chatting with co-workers in the kitchen, don’t talk about work.

While these steps can help minimize interruptions throughout your day, interruptions are part of life. Creating “Ready-to-Resume plan” can help manage those unavoidable interruptions and minimize attention residue while taking time to jot down notes on the interrupted task will allow your attention to switch more easily, instead of holding onto incomplete work. As UMN professor and researcher Theresa Glomb said during her TedxUMN Talk, having a system in place in anticipation of interruptions is like “parking downhill” at work alllowing you to return to your work with confidence.