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There are many situations where you're working on something that requires concentration, but where you can't avoid interruptions. Some classic examples are working next to a sleeping infant, or in a workplace where ad hoc communication is prioritized allowing people uninterrupted time for concentration.

The ideal solution is to decrease the interruptions, but many times this isn't possible. What can one do to stay as productive as possible under such constraints?

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I'm afraid I can't accept the premise of your question. If you're really in a situation where interruptions can't be avoided, then by the definition of the word interruption, you're not going to have dedicated blocks of time to work on a task. It seems as if this is really the situation you're in you're out of luck. Work requiring concentration probably can't be effectively performed in an environment where you're likely to be frequently interrupted. Change your environment or work on something else. –  Adam Wuerl Jul 14 '11 at 12:46

5 Answers 5

  • Have tiered interruptions; be able to decide quickly what's worth paying attention to, and what's just another distraction.
  • Forget about everything but the task at hand. It will be tempting to keep other things in mind, but you must push everything else out and lose yourself in your work. (Subject to high-tiered interruptions, mentioned above)
  • Keep a list of tasks readily available. When you finish, you'll waste time transitioning unless you figure out what's next immediately. I recommend against a mental task list unless absolutely necessary.
  • Once every 1/2 hour to 3 hours, when you start to feel exhausted or blocked, take a break; loosen up. Break away before you feel that "almost done" feeling (if you're a little tired), or you'll be less productive when you return to task.
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@Barbarossa: What do you mean by tiered interruptions? –  Bernard Vander Beken Jul 25 '11 at 20:21
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There are some things that are more important than work, and you need to know what those are beforehand. e.g., the baby needs food or bathroom; there's a tornado outside; you need to resolve a conflict and NOW is the best time. –  Barbarrosa Jul 26 '11 at 18:48

I would have added this as a comment if I had enough points but here's an insight:

I have a simple solution that work very well for me. I use very good noise cancelling headphone. I can't hear anything around me with them on, so I get focused on my computer screen. Sometime, it even goes to the point of not seeing my surrounding. Moreover, if my colleagues want to chat-talk with me, they rapidly abandon when they see that I have headphone on. Well, I guess that solution would not be good with childrens though.

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which headfone do you use? –  RHaguiuda Jul 15 '11 at 13:28
    
I use Monster Turbine that can be found on Amazon for about hundred bucks, but I recommend buying "SuperTip Starter Kit" for best results. –  Zonata Jul 18 '11 at 14:24

A possible solution to your predicament is to identify possible methods to quickly regain concentration on a subject after it has been lost. An example of this is when you are reading a book/article and you get interrupted. Make a careful note of where you stopped (maybe even highlight it), so you don't reread sections when you lose track of where you are. Another example would be, if you are working out a specific problem in your head, and you know you'll be distracted, make written notes of your line of thought so that you can easily return to it.

The more you can create physical reminders of what you were last doing, the less you'll be retracing old steps due to distractions.

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Francesco Cirillo, in The Pomodoro Technique, describes a few strategies on how to handle both internal and external interruptions. You can skip a few pages to the chapter 2.2 Objective II: Cut Down on Interruptions but I suggest reading the whole thing as it's about 30 pages long and his interruption strategies have a strong bond with the technique itself.

Roughly, the Pomodoro Technique consists in measuring how many blocks of 30 minutes it takes to finish a task then you evaluate how it can be more efficient. The block of 30 minutes consists of 25 minutes of focused work and a 5 minutes interval. It's all under the premise that 20-45 minutes can maximize our attention and mental activity if followed by a short break.

That's assuming you weren't making a direct reference to GTD, which renders this answer off-topic.

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+1 because it works for me. –  xrath Jul 15 '11 at 2:44

First, I would see which of the interruptions really are necessary. (I have a do not disturb sign at work.) If that's not possible, can you adjust your work hours or work someplace other than the physical office so you can get an hour to yourself.

Also, what kind of work are you trying to get done. If it is something that requires a lot of state in your mind like creative work, constant interruptions are going to be worse that something less mentally taxing.

For creative work, I recommend finding a time you are left alone (even if it is your commute) to do the creative parts. Then have an outline/list of small things you can do in 5-20 minute chunks. It's easier to do a tiny thing without being interrupted. And if you are, there is less state to reload.

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