What is Interrupt Coalescing?

Aug 16, 2022

Table of contents:

  1. How does Interrupt Coalescing work?
  2. What are the benefits of Interrupt Coalescing?
  3. How to implement Interrupt Coalescing

A sure fire way to break your flow state is to get interrupted. When working on a task that has a long ramp up time, a constant barrage of interruptions can be the kiss of death to achieving what you set out to do.

Interrupt Coalescing is where you block out interruptions so that you can concentrate on completing tasks without distraction. It is the intentional process of ignoring distractions, or making yourself unavailable to interruption in order to concentrate on the task at hand.

This is an important concept if you frequently find yourself being taken away from what you were supposed to be doing.

Whilst this can be important, or often a prerequisite in order to do deep work, it does come at a cost. Productivity is all about managing the balance between being responsive and getting things done.

In this article we’re going to be looking at the benefits of Interrupt Coalescing for your productivity.

How does Interrupt Coalescing work?

Interrupt Coalescing is the conscious effort to prevent interruptions. This could mean intentionally blocking yourself off from distractions such as phone calls or answering emails for a period of time whilst you concentrate on staying in the flow state of deep work.

Having long periods of time to focus on a single task is often required if you want to tackle complex, creative, and important tasks. Certain types of tasks require a high level of creativity, concentration, and focus, and it is these types of tasks that often have a long ramp up time before you actually get to the stage of being productive.

If you are constantly getting interrupted or distracted, you will find that you are never able to reach the productive nivana of flow state because you keep getting knocked off the ramp. In order to reach the hallowed land, you need to block out interruptions.

However, whilst I’m sure we all wish we were interrupted less and allowed to focus for extended periods of time, it’s often not that simple. For the majority of people, work is a complex negotiation between being responsive and getting things done.

For example, perhaps you are a freelance designer and you get paid for producing beautiful illustrations for editorial publications. You need long periods of focus time in order to produce your best work. However, as a freelancer, you also need to be responsive to incoming enquiries for new work, questions on current projects, as well as a barrage of other messages, pings, and notifications we experience in our hyper connected digital world.

If you don’t provide a certain threshold of responsiveness, you might lose work opportunities, jeopardise your existing client relationships, or fall behind on the amount of small, yet urgent administrative tasks associated with running your own business.

This is why in larger companies, you will have specific people assigned to being responsive, and others assigned to getting stuff done. For example, if the designer was working as part of a design agency, they might spend 90% of their time focused on design work as an account manager would be made available to be responsive to clients and sales executives would be responsible for fielding new opportunities.

However as a freelancer or solopreneur, it’s up to you to find the balance of responsiveness and throughput via Interrupt Coalescing.

What are the benefits of Interrupt Coalescing?

The benefit of Interrupt Coalescing is that you have decided how long you will ignore interruptions and distractions before dealing with them. A lot of people get stuck in the middle ground of trying to do deep work whilst also dealing with interruptions.

This will allow you to find the time to focus on your most creative, complex, and important tasks without getting pulled in different directions. Ideally you would have a designated person to handle responsiveness, but if that’s not the case, you need to make the decision on how responsive you are going to be and not being any more responsive than that otherwise you jeopardise your opportunity to do important work.

If you can delay responsiveness as much as possible, you will increase the throughput of what you can get done. But this comes at a cost, which is potentially unhappy customers and lost sales. If on the other hand you increase responsiveness, you will reduce throughput, but it will mean it takes longer to launch that new feature or redesign that could make or break the company.

How to implement Interrupt Coalescing

Implementing Interrupt Coalescing is essentially about deciding how responsive you want to be. This then allows you to ensure you spend dedicated time on your tasks without distraction.

For example, if your main source of distractions and interruptions is email, you might decide to only reply to emails twice per day. This would give you two blocks of 4 hours where you could focus on getting your work done.

This might seem difficult at first, but you don’t always have to reply as soon as you receive an email. Email is first and foremost an asynchronous communication medium. The ubiquity of email has tricked us into thinking we should always be available to respond.

However, if you consider email in the same light as post in the mail, you will see it very differently. For example, if you receive a letter, it doesn’t matter if you reply in 2 minutes or in 2 hours, the recipient won’t receive your message any quicker because the post is only delivered once per day.

Once you have decided on your service level agreement of responsiveness, you need to stick to it. This could mean establishing it as a stipulation of the contract so your clients understand you won’t reply to them immediately.

You should also set your phone or computer to not alert you with notifications. Instead allow them to build up in the background, and then deal with them all at once you have finished your focused work.

If you find yourself in the situation where you have many people coming to you to ask questions, get advice on what to do next, or require help or guidance, a good way of dealing with this situation is to have regular scheduled meetings. Instead of many interruptions throughout the day, you can focus on dealing with all of those questions and enquiries in a single block of time.

Philip Brown


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