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Interruptions are common in all work environments, and, at some point, desirable. Also, we all experience the problem of losing track of where are we at in our flow when we get interrupted.

However, when I'm in The Flow™, interruptions sometimes feel like a splash of cold water, even when the other person is gently passing by. This leads to weird situations were my mind is confused for a while transitioning between my previous task and the new conversation, and the situation is really awkward. It is uncomfortable for this person, as they feel they're really bothering me when maybe they were just doing something I asked them to do, and it is uncomfortable for me as I (not on purpose) transmit that sensation of being put out of my place.

So, how do I improve my behavior when being interrupted?

Note: I think (not sure) the problem relies on the interruptions taking me away of my train of thought, and my immediate thinking when I get interrupted is I am loosing grip of what I'm thinking, which makes me anxious on not wanting to re-do my thinking work all over again. If that was true, then maybe the solution to this is a way to get back to the same point you were and recover that inspirational flow exactly where you left it. Is that possible?

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I find that two tricks work for me. The first is to politely ask the person to wait a moment for me to finish what I'm working on (which allows for buffering the train of thought to notes before continuing). The second is to ask for a few moments to refocus before continuing (allowing for a full mental swap). If neither works, I tend to make my intentions to maintain my mental clarity more explicit. If that doesn't work, I avoid the person involved if I can, because it's clear they don't value my mental integrity enough for me to answer them effectively. This is completely subjective, though. – MrGomez Jan 24 '12 at 21:23
@MrGomez That doesn't comment on the question, but answer it. Thus, it should be in the answers section. IMHO. – xmjx Jan 25 '12 at 7:15
@xmjx I generally roll subjectively-rooted responses into comments, though I should probably ask for explicit clarification instead of begging the question. Given the answers below address this more clearly, I think I'll just leave this here for now. – MrGomez Jan 25 '12 at 19:37
@MrGomez I can relate to that but I think this whole Q&A site (productivity) is subjective. It's not like there are true answers to most questions. At least not in the sense as there are true answers for programming-related questions. – xmjx Jan 26 '12 at 7:57
@xmjx This may be a good discussion for Rereading the FAQ, I'll note that productivity.SE has the same boilerplate note on subjective questions that StackOverflow does. That may be inappropriate, given the degree of subjectivity inherent in process-oriented questions. Fixing it would do wonders to correct cases where reluctance to answer instead of comment is simply inappropriate. – MrGomez Jan 26 '12 at 19:41
up vote 1 down vote accepted

I think you are doing the right thing, but it's how busy you are and how others perceive your response to them.

IMHO a good approach, if you are worried about the interrupter, is to make eye contact and say "Just give me 10 seconds". Then immediately turn and finish the thing you were doing, or paste/write/jot down a reminder of where you were at. Then, when you are sufficiently prepared for a distraction, ask what's up. If you need a minute to get there, take a minute. That extra time will signal to most people that you are indeed busy.

If you are too busy, tell them to give you quick version in a friendly tone, and that you are pretty busy today. If not, ask what you can do to help them.

The other two things to be conscious of are body language and facial expressions. You don't want to appear annoyed when they ask, so you might want to think of something funny or happy when you divert your attention away from them to gather yourself. It sounds stupid, but facial expressions give away your thoughts, and if you see them as an annoyance, they will read that. Be happy that you get a chance to talk with someone. It's also important not to divide your attention. Don't use the break in concentration to sort things or clean out your Recycle Bin as they talk to you. Give them your undivided attention, whether it's for one minute or five. Don't stay facing your computer. Turn your body towards them and make eye contact as clear signals that you're ready to listen to them.

If you find, as you say, that non-direct interruptions such as people passing by are distracting, that is another matter. You can control direct interactions with others more easily than inadvertent ones. It also depends on whether you are distracted by the necessity for interaction, or just the sights and sounds. If it's the interaction, as other have said, having headphones on will help avoid some interactions. I don't know what to say if it's the sights and sounds. One of these?

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Thanks for the lots of little separate advices, they all apply and they all are good ideas. – Alpha Jan 30 '12 at 16:26

So if the interruptions are causal chat-type ones then I would recommend wearing headphones (don't have to listen to music, just if you are wearing headphones it makes you a touch less approachable).

If they are more responsibility based then I'd recommend Randy Pausch's tip (the quote is taken from his time management talk transcript at

How do you cut things short? Because people always want to spend more time than you want to spend. Where you can say, look, somebody interrupts you and says: "Got a few minutes?" and I say: "Well, I'm in the middle of something right now." That tells them: "I'm interrupting it, and I'm going to do it quickly, but I've got to get back to that." Or you can say: "I only have five minutes." The great thing about that is that later you have the privilege of extending that if you so choose. But when the five minutes are up then you say: "Well, I said at the beginning I'll have five minutes and I really have to go now." So it's a very socially played way to bound the amount of time on the interaction.

As an aside, I've noticed more and more colleagues developing a 'incredibility, incredibility busy' persona, as a defence against both interruptions and being given extra work - It's not a philosophy I think helps - if anything I think it attracts more interruptions :(

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