We’re always busy doing something, or at least it seems that way. When we’re not at work, we’re running errands or doing household chores. On top of that, many of us regularly work out at the gym, watch our kids’ soccer games, attend religious services, volunteer with a charity, or fill our schedules with other obligations. Even the things people do to relax—such as watching TV, going to the movies or a sporting event, and playing video games—often take up distinct chunks of time too.
Because most of us have so little unscheduled, free-flowing time in our lives, we feel like we’re always being interrupted. We let the phone go to voicemail because we’re in the middle of something, no matter when we get a call. We feel annoyed when a coworker asks a question because it breaks our train of thought. When a family member wants help around the house, it’s a nuisance because we have to put aside whatever we were doing. Even if it’s nothing but Facebook or a mindless video game, we’re still getting interrupted, and we don’t like it.
In today’s society, interruptions often are described as wasting time, which in turn causes us to resent people who interrupt us. A common cultural script goes like this: “How inconsiderate they’re being! Don’t they know our time is valuable? We’ll never get anything done if they keep bothering us!”
When I’ve had a day with a lot of interruptions and start feeling annoyed, I find it helpful to remind myself that it’s not really a natural instinct to react this way, even though that’s what it may seem like. Getting angry when we’re interrupted is a culturally conditioned response—or, in other words, a collective bad habit. We can change how we react to interruptions by reframing them in our minds. When our coworkers or family members ask us something, it’s probably not because they want to waste our time. On the contrary, if they didn’t value our input, they wouldn’t be asking for it.
Living in such a busy world gives us both opportunities and challenges. Every year we have more choices about how to spend our time, and we can put together a schedule better suited to our needs and interests. We have far more opportunities than at any time in the past. But the more choices we have, the more mental energy it takes to navigate them effectively. We don’t have much left over for dealing with unexpected changes. Without predictable routines, we’re likely to get overwhelmed by stress. So when someone interrupts us, we may perceive it as a threat to our fragile coping ability. As such, it triggers the fight-or-flight response. We may snap at the person or storm off in a huff before we even stop to think about it.
Because so much of how we respond to interruptions takes place on a subconscious level, if we want to respond differently, we have to change our subconscious perceptions of what an interruption is. Put another way, we have to tell ourselves different stories. Humans are by nature storytelling creatures, and we filter all of our experiences through the narratives we use to explain them. Therefore, if we don’t want to get stressed out by interruptions, we have to convince ourselves that the interruptions are not really a problem.
Parents do this as a routine matter when teaching children good time management habits. We might, for instance, tell our kids that it’s time to do their homework now, and they can just pause the cartoon or the video game—it’ll still be there afterward. But often we don’t think about applying this simple lesson to our own busy schedules. When we get interrupted at work or while we’re doing something around the house, we’re likely to react without thinking and get annoyed about it. We’d do better to remind ourselves that the task isn’t urgent (which it usually isn’t) and can get done later.
As with many of the things we do, taking control of the interruptions in our lives is chiefly about developing better habits.