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Interruptions and digital distractions

person using macbook pro on brown wooden table
Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

Research on multi-tasking and interruptions has shown that we generally react to a new message within 6 seconds. Resuming a task after an interruption takes between 64 seconds and 20 minutes. Constant activity switching can actually have more negative effects than actual interruptions.

Also, research on notification behaviour has shown that critical messages are only 12% of what we receive.

We have conducted research with remote workers to discover what helps workers focus on their work. They told us that the most important things were:

  1. quiet spaces,
  2. limited distractions, 
  3. background entertainment (mainly listening to music)

Our participants told us about the strategies they use to manage distractions that come from other people:

“I use noise cancelling headphones. I tune out environmental noises or activities. I remain focused on what I’m doing. I do not engage in more than one activity at a time unless the [the work] require me to do so. I do not eat or listen to music while I work. I tend to work when the environment is calm rather than when I know those around me will be active.”

“I try to work during times I know the kids are being independent or napping.”


Sharing your work space with people who are prone to interrupt you is always difficult. Agreeing on a daily schedule that everyone can stick to might be helpful for helping to plan when you’re going get your work done. Be sure to schedule coffee and lunch breaks and agree an end point for the day.

Remember that everyone feels that their own work is important so you can’t have one person dominating the way the space is being used. There’s going to have to be a lot of compromise. Define a space for those who need quiet space and a space for those who need to make conference calls

If you have young children then talk to them about what they can be doing whilst you get on with your work. Some children can get lost in a book or happily play for hours with their toys. Most children can be occupied by tv or digital games. If you can, stick on some headphones and power through! Perhaps young children could be entertained by grandparents through videoconferencing software – they could read stories to them, or have a chat.

Enhancing focus through reducing interruptions and digital distractions

There are several strategies that can help you reduce the amount of interruptions and distractions – making it easier to focus on the tasks you want to complete:

  • Turn off push notifications. There is no need to be alerted by every new email. This will help you reduce the number of times you check your email.
  • Disconnect sometimes. Consider calendaring half-days at work where you can’t go online. Commit to email-free evenings, weekends and holidays. Consider having an ‘auto-response’ that makes it clear you’re not checking, such as “As an attempt to master more work-life balance, I don’t check my email during the weekend. I will get back to you next week.”
  • When you don’t want to be interrupted, put your phone on airplane mode, or simply turn off data (so you still get phone calls and text messages).
  • Finally, you could also simply put your phone with the screen facing down on the table to avoid catching glimpses of incoming notifications or leave it in your bag out of sight.

Blocking distracting websites:

http://www.stayfocusd.com/ (works on Chrome)

http://www.proginosko.com/leechblock/ (works on Firefox)

http://www.bumblebeesystems.com/wastenotime/ (works on

Can be used to have focused work time or help unplug. It allows you to block apps during focused time but still receive SMS or calls. It also creates a log of your usage patterns to help you gain more insight.

Freedom (1 week free trial)
It used to be called StayFocusd and it is still available as a free
Chrom plug-in.

MindfulBrowsing (on Chrome)
Encourages alternative behaviours instead of visiting certain

Serene (MacOS app, and Chrome & Firefox add-ons)
The MacOS version allows you set a goal and blocks any application or website you specify until you complete your goal.

Limiting time on apps:

Flipd App
It puts a timer on your phone lock screen to prevent you from accessing distracting apps. You are still able to receive notifications or access your phone, it just makes it a bit harder.

Hold app (iOS and Android)
Collect point and win rewards for time spent away from your phone.

Forest (iOS and Android)
To encourage you to not use your phone when you need to focus, the app will grow a forest one tree at a time the longer you spend away from your phone.

Automate meeting scheduling

Use a meeting scheduler to ask people to book time with you when
you are available. This will help you plan ahead and make sure you
schedule focused time as well as time off.


You Can Book Me (14 day free trial)

Appointly (14 day free trial)

Clockwise (on Google Calendar and Chrome add-on)
This plug-in helps you by re-organising meetings automatically
to free up time to focus.

How to turn off notifications on phone

Settings -> Notification center -> App notification management-> select the app you want to change settings for -> select
if and where you want notifications displayed.

Settings -> Notifications -> select the app you want to change
settings for -> toggle notifications off. Consider also whether
you want the notification to be displayed on the lock screen, or
whether you want the ‘Badge App icon” (the red circle with the
number). Repeat for all other apps you want to change

Windows phone
Settings -> Notifications & actions -> find the app you want to
change -> select preferred notifications (Windows phone 8)

How to customise “Do Not Disturb” settings

From the top menu: Slack -> Preferences -> Do not disturb
-> customise the time when you do not want to be disturbed
From the top menu: Slack -> Preferences -> Notifications ->
select Nothing & then repeat this for every team

Laptop (Mac)
Apple menu -> System Preferences -> Notifications -> Do
not disturb -> then select when to turn off notifications
(e.g. specific times)

Laptop (Windows 10)
In the bottom right corner, right click or press and hold “Action Centre icon” -> select Turn on Quiet hours.
Alternatively, open Settings -> System -> Notifications and
actions -> select your preferred settings (e.g. showing notifications on the lock screen, turning off notifications, etc.).