Interruptions and Learned Helplessness

Published on September 15th, 2020

Imagine an alarm clock that goes off at short, random intervals. Despite all efforts to guess when the next loud noise is coming, it could be anywhere from 5 seconds to 5 minutes.

Imagine trying to work on something complicated that requires deep focus. Think of something at the level of chess or sudoku, where you might have to store lots of different options in your brain all at the same time while not losing your place.

Now try to mix the two together. It’s challenging to think 10 to 15 moves ahead in chess if a loud interruption happens within 10 to 15 seconds. You may get 4-5 and then BUZZZZZ. You mentally reset and then get 5-10 steps and then BUZZZZZZ.

Eventually, you get lucky. The next alarm may not come for 5 minutes, but you know it’s coming. Still, you got an entire move thought of and completed before the alarm happens. Knowing it’s about to happen, you don’t even bother to try and prepare for the next move because it’s just a matter of time before the next interruption.

Now imagine trying to do this for an entire workday. However, instead of chess, you are trying to write code. Or maybe you are working through a complicated set of requirements with your colleagues). All the while, you get text notifications from friends or social media notifications in your browser tabs. You may see an email or Slack alert go off as a colleague responds to a question or maybe asks for a favor. Or perhaps you are in an office, and a colleague stops by. Or maybe you are working from home and your kiddo stops by to say hi and give you a hug.

Imagine in an 8-hour day you have a grand total of 10-15 notifications per hour (approximately 100-200 per day). Each time your mental RAM dumps out, you have to re-assemble it all together. At best, you move the task one tiny step forward before your RAM empties again.

This is why it’s so essential to use programs like to block social media sites, or a phone’s do not disturb mode to block texts. At some point, the interruptions must be aggressively blocked, lest you succumb to…

Learned Helplessness

If interruptions occur day in and day out, eventually, it becomes paralyzing. Why bother starting a task if you know it may take you 10 attempts just to complete it?

Eventually, the fear of the interruption itself will stop you from acting until it happens. Then you frantically work hard, trying to race a clock of an indeterminate amount of time. Eventually, that even becomes too exhausting and social media and email checking becomes the only form of low-energy work you can complete while the interruptions keep piling on. This becomes a vicious cycle because, effectively, you are now living in a land full of rabbit holes and distractions.

The way to interrupt the pattern is to interrupt the interruptions. Close doors, turn off signal, go to a new location, etc. Whatever you can do to place time and space as a protective barrier from them.

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About Rick Manelius

Quick Stats: CXO of Atomic Form. Graduated from MIT in '03 (BS) and '09 (PhD). Life hacker and peak performance enthusiast. This blog is my experiment in creative writing, self-expression, and sharing what I've learned along my journey. For more information, read my full bio here or contact me.