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Taming the “monkey mind”: How to deal with interruptions in your CSR career

A long time ago, Buddha described the human mind as being like a monkey grabbing one branch only to let it go to seize another branch. This so-called “monkey mind” is often encouraged by our surroundings, particularly in the social and nonprofit sector where clients, staff, customers, funders and others all vie for our attention and limited resources.

Gloria Mark, professor in the Department of Informatics at the University of California, who studies what’s called “interruption science”, conducted a study of office workers in which she found that each employee “spent only 11 minutes on any given project before being interrupted”, and worse, that “each time a worker was distracted from a task, it would take, on average, 25 minutes to return to that task.”

Sound familiar?

Triaging Interruptions: Ten Techniques

Here are ten triage techniques that people working in the purposeful space find useful.

1. Take responsibility for yourself.  Don’t blame others for interrupting you, learn how to communicate when you are busy. Ensure that you are focusing when you do have time so that you can better share your time with those who may need it.

2. Manage the interruption rather than letting it manage you. Gage when something is urgent and address it when it is to allow for other work to be done on a clear mind.

3. Train your brain. Mindfulness techniques can be useful in training your mind not to be distracted, says Archer, as well as to be able to refocus more quickly on the original task.

4. Set priorities. Prioritize the things you absolutely need to deal with in a day and make note of the things that can wait.

5. Use tools. Many people use a wide variety of tools as visual cues to others or ways of blocking out distractions when work is less conducive to interruptions. These can include noise-canceling headphones, schedules, timers, traffic light signals, do not disturb signs, etc. Eliminating tools – such as turning off notifications on cell phones or putting phones aside — can also minimize interruptions.

6. Get some data. Track interruptions to understand where they are coming from so that you can manage them better.

7. Create (and use) policies, procedures and systems. Organizations can develop complaint policies or FAQ brochures and other tools that address common interruptions with less disruption.

8. Delegate. While recognizing that it’s often easier and more satisfying to do a task ourselves, delegating a task can eliminate interruptions for one person while rewarding another staff with more responsibility.

9. Talk to your team. Organizations can work far more effectively if they have conversations about how, when and how often communication happens. If an employee frequently interrupts with questions, asking them to save questions to meet weekly or daily. Another technique could be to decide as a team when it is appropriate to pop a head in the door, and what calls for an email, a text or a phone call.

10. Set aside time for deep work. Some may find time at the end of the day after other staff and volunteers have left to be productive time for quiet concentration. Other people come in early, explain they will be closing their door for a certain amount of time, or work from home. It is also vital for teams to set times for deep work when engaged in collaborative work or meetings that benefit from focus, such as a performance appraisal.

In the end, interruptions are inevitable! Even if our days are not unlike monkeys swinging from branch to branch, we can learn to be conscious of the interruptions and how we choose to prepare for and respond to them.

This article originally appeared on CharityVillage’s blog and has been reprinted with permission.

Susan Fish is a writer/editor at Storywell, a company that helps individuals and organizations tell their story well. She has written for the nonprofit sector for almost two decades and loves a good story. 

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