ThinkingHow to stay focused by stopping self-interruptions

How to stay focused by stopping self-interruptions

This is the third part in a series on how technology “hijacks our minds” (to quote Google’s Tristan Harris). You can read part one of the series here.

The last two blog posts have focused on how technology can distract and interrupt us. We’ve looked at two key mechanisms:

  • The strong reinforcing effects from social media in particular – where Facebook “likes” and LinkedIn “shares” send dopamine zinging through our brains – on a random basis, like slot machines – conditioning a behaviour to be constantly checking.
  • The way our brain’s attentional filter – the thing that helps us concentrate and get work done, because it screens out the rest of the world – is particularly vulnerable to novelty, which means that new alerts (like new email alerts) can sabotage our flow really easily. The study I quoted showed that for every email alert that comes in, there’s a 40% chance you’ll open the email within three seconds, and then spend the next nine minutes doing all sorts of stuff (not just working on that one email) before you return to your original task.

Today, I want to talk about how technology also aids us in a particularly pernicious form of self-sabotage – “self-interruption”.

For this post I’m relying on a great 2011 article by Laura Dabbish from Carnegie Mellon, Gloria Mark from University of California, Irvine, and Victor Gonzalez from Instituto Tecnologico Autonomo in Mexico: Why do I keep interrupting myself?: environment, habit and self-interruption. It was published as part of the Computer and Human Interaction (CHI) conference in Vancouver in 2011. The article describes “an analysis of 889 hours of observed task switching behavior from 36 individuals across three high technology information work organizations”.

What is self-interruption?

A self-interruption is exactly what it sounds. It’s when you interrupt yourself – taking your attention away from what you are currently doing and putting it somewhere else. In the 2011 article the authors define the term as follows: “Self-interruptions involve abandoning an ongoing task prior to completion, and changing focus to a different task without prompting by an external event or entity.”

What prompts self-interruption?

The article names a number of factors that seem to contribute to self-interruptions. These include:

  • The working environment – open plan offices seem to lead to more self-interruptions.
  • Individual habits – some individuals, or job roles, have higher rates of self-interruption.
  • The time of day – mornings seem to have more self-interruptions than afternoons.
  • The number of external interruptions that occurred in the hour before – the more you were interrupted last hour, the more likely you are to interrupt yourself this hour.

Open plan offices

It seems that open plan offices cause more self-interruptions. Open plan offices clearly cause more external interruptions, but surprisingly open plan offices also cause more self-interruptions. As the authors say: “…individuals seated in open office environments self-interrupted at a substantially higher rate. In open office layouts all individuals can observe and overhear the interactions of all other individuals which may create an environment conducive to self-interruptions…”

What’s the take-out from this? If you are trying to get a piece of work done that requires concentration close the door to your office (if you are one of the remaining lucky few to have an actual office – I can count on the fingers of one hand all the clients I know still in this situation). Otherwise, go to a quiet room to work. Or stay home to get it done. Or maybe, even go to a cafe – the white noise and anonymity can sometimes act as a shield.

Your habits

Individual differences seem to account for a lot of self-interruptions. The study we are looking at finds it hard to distinguish between individual differences in ability to concentrate and job role. Maybe some jobs just require switching more. But, nonetheless, it seems like an intuitive point. Some people are better able to concentrate for longer than others.

If you feel frustrated at your ability to hold concentration for a long time, don’t despair. Remember the brain is plastic – neuro plasticity is your friend – you can change you brain.

Here are some ideas for increasing your concentration span:

  • Stay off social media (LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook especially) for a month. I guarantee you, if you are a heavy user of social media, that it’s shortening your attention span. I bet, even after a week, you’ll notice an increase in your ability to concentrate.
  • Read a paper book again. When was the last time you read a physical book? If it’s been a while, time to go to the library. Pick a book – almost any book will do – and read it cover to cover. The sustained attention required to read a physical book – which has no hyperlinks or distracting alerts – and which has the advantage of being a multi-sensory experience (my book publisher mother always said you can tell a good book by its smell!) – will help your brain to settle down.
  • Try building up the amount of time you spend at your desk without interrupting yourself. Use the pomodoro technique to gradually build it up. If the average interruption happens about every 8 minutes in your world, start by trying to work for 15 mins without a break. Over the course of a few weeks build this to 45 mins – which seems to be the optimal length of time to sustain attention before taking a break, for most people.

Time of day

The Dabbish, Mark and Gonzales’ article finds a link between self-interruption and time of day: “Time of day was significantly associated with interruption rates. Informants interrupted themselves more often the earlier it was in the day and less often as the day progressed.”

I don’t understand this. In my experience I can concentrate better – and interrupt myself less – in the morning. In the afternoons, when I am tired, I’ll interrupt myself with technology more easily. The authors seem to think this is something about getting tasks done during the day, and wanting them finished before going home. Maybe my experience being self employed is different here. I’d love to hear from you as to what you find. Are you better at not self-interrupting in the afternoons?

Anyway – I think the tip here is to be conscious that the time of day is likely to be a factor. Find the time of day when you can concentrate the best and make sure you do everything to optimise that. Turn off technology alerts, isolate yourself, do whatever you need to, in the times of day when you will get the biggest payoff.

External interruptions the hour before

Perhaps the most interesting finding from the study is the relationship between the number of external interruptions a person was exposed to in the previous hour and the number of times they self-interrupt in the next hour. As the authors say: “We found that external interruptions experienced in the previous hour significantly increase the incidence of self-interruption in the subsequent hour.”

In short – the more times you were externally interrupted last hour – the more times you will interrupt yourself the next hour.

Why? The authors suggest a really interesting mechanism: “One interpretation we offer is that people may be conditioned to self-interrupt. By experiencing external interruptions they may become habituated to self-interrupt.” They go on to speculate that if you have become used to being externally interrupted every 8 minutes (the average in this study) then as the time builds without an interruption “one might self-interrupt, due to habit.”

What’s the take out from this? Turn off the email alerts! And do whatever you can to stop your technology interrupting you. Because there is a vicious cycle going on here. The more technology interrupts you, the more conditioned you become to being interrupted, and the more you will interrupt yourself if there’s no external interruption to do it for you. What a horrible downwards spiral.

It’s not all bad news

There are some positive aspects to self-interruption. In the study we’ve been referring to, Dabbish, Mark, and Gonzalez found that people will self-interrupt when they are doing something that’s not the most important, to get back to the task that’s more important. In fact a lot of self interruption is this kind of positive behaviour. As the authors say: “People seem to self-interrupt to switch to solitary work for which they are accountable, suggesting a potential positive aspect of self-interruption for the completion of key work tasks.”

This makes a lot of sense. So don’t write off all self-interruptions as bad. Sometimes it’s you actually reminding yourself to get back to your most important task.

Next week

Next week, in part four of this series, we will start to talk about how technology is contributing to information overload, and what we can do about it. If you haven’t already subscribed, drop me a line at and I’ll pop you on the list so you don’t miss future posts.