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Archive for April 2012

How to Manage (and Minimize) Workplace Interruptions

One of the most common complaints I hear has to do with something that is so fundamentally a part of the modern workplace, it’s almost impossible to avoid. Yes, I’m talking about the dreaded interruption.

We all have to deal with it, though admittedly, some have it worse than others. A client of mine recently shared her very frustrating situation. You see, due to the office layout, her desk was out in the open, right by the front door, making her a sitting duck. Because of this set up, she was constantly engaging with walk-by traffic. People didn’t hesitate to plop themselves down at her desk—even when she was on the phone or heads down working. They stopped by casually on their way to the restroom. If she was at her desk, they just assumed she was available for a chat.

Anyway, she got to a breaking point. She started trying to make herself LOOK completely frazzled and overwhelmed so people would just back off and leave her alone. She would scowl and rush around and avoid making eye contact with people. Whenever someone approached her, she avoided being too friendly for fear they would sit down and get comfortable. And then, she suddenly realized:  She hated the person she was becoming.

Clearly, we had a problem to address. Avoiding interruptions in a passive way like this can really backfire, as this client experienced.

I know this is a common challenge in the workplace. Aside from in-person interruptions, we’re constantly bombarded with IMs, phone calls, emails and so much more.

So here, I’m going to share a few of the key suggestions I offered my client. Take what works for you; leave the rest. This kind of thing really depends heavily on the kind of work environment you’re in and your position so it’s not one-size-fits-all.

And, of course, feel free to add your own tips in the comments below!

1. Plan For It

If you work with other human beings, chances are pretty high that you’re going to experience interruptions on a fairly regular basis. That’s just how it goes. It’s not that people want to disrespect your time and throw off your carefully planned day; but some interruptions are important and simply unavoidable. If you’re even a minimally important employee, there will be times when your assistance, knowledge or presence will be required unexpectedly.

My point? Stop being surprised by interruptions! Plan for them! You know they’re going to happen so work that into your equation. When establishing timelines, negotiating deadlines, or simply outlining your day, recognize that you’ll probably be thrown off course a few times. Give yourself a little leeway here and there to allow for it. If you schedule yourself so tight that you have no wiggle room, the tiniest interruption will throw a wrench into everything.

In college, I worked for a very kind, very busy Optometrist. He couldn’t say “no” to last-minute patients who desperately needed an appointment. So, as his secretary, I learned to intentionally leave a few gaps in his schedule each day, just in case. That way, the unexpected interruptions could be worked in without causing too much trouble.

Where can you give yourself a little more wiggle room?

2. Take Control

No one is going to protect your time for you. It’s your responsibility. So take matters into your own hands and create a system that works for you. Turn off your instant messenger. Set your phone to go straight to voicemail. There’s no reason you should have to be at the mercy of everyone else. Just be sure that you’re checking in regularly and getting back to people within a reasonable amount of time.

Don’t be afraid to use some kind of “do not disturb” sign to help deter in-person visitors too. I know it sounds awkward but, if you really need to focus your attention on a project, what’s wrong with providing a signal to others? The key to making this work is that you also have to have “open office hours”—specific times when you make yourself available for drop ins. You can’t keep the “do not disturb” sign up all day long! Communicate your new system to others in the office and you’ll be surprised how many people respect the rules. This kind of thing often catches on; when one person starts it, others quickly implement a similar system for themselves.

How can you take more control?

3. Don’t Initiate

This one almost goes without saying but, alas, I’ll say it anyway: If you don’t want people to interrupt you, don’t interrupt them. Show respect for others by asking, “Is now a good time to talk?” before simply launching into a conversation. Be a role model for the kind of behavior you’d like to see from others. Don’t ping co-workers on IM with pointless chitchat if you don’t want them to do the same. You have the power to train others on how you want to interact with them simply by demonstrating the behavior.

Have you been unintentionally training others that interruptions are just fine by you? How can you change your actions to better reflect what you want?

4. Hide

Sometimes, the easiest way to avoid interruptions is to hide from them. And by that, I mean really HIDE. There are two simple ways to do this.

First, you can hide right where you are by simply requesting a wall. If your desk is out in the open, it’s way too easy for people to drop by.  If they can’t see you, it’s a lot harder. One wall is all it takes (usually) to block you from view from the majority of foot traffic. They have pretty Japanese inspired designs (like this one) as well as plain old cubicle style ones. They’re also light enough that you move them for your “open office hours” if you wish, and they’re very inexpensive for the amount of peace they provide. (If you have cubicles in your office, you can probably find a spare wall if you look hard enough.)

The second way to hide is to GET OUTTA THERE. Physically pick up your work and head to a quiet spot. Is there an empty conference room you can use perhaps?

If it’s absolutely impossible to get uninterrupted time at the office, you may need to negotiate a day or half-day outside the office. I did this at my last job and it made a world of difference. A few hours of focused time can result in more work accomplished than days of interrupted time.

5. Just Say No

Now, earlier I said that some interruptions are important and unavoidable. Those are the ones you should plan for. However, some interruptions are totally unimportant and completely avoidable. Those are the ones you should stop. And the best way to do it is to JUST SAY NO. Don’t beat around the bush. Don’t make up an excuse. Just be straight forward and matter-of-fact.

“I’m not available right now. Can we schedule a time to talk later?”

As I always say, “Learning how to say ‘no’ is a lot easier than living with the consequences of always saying ‘yes’.”

Practice it. Use it. Yes, it feels uncomfortable at first, but missed deadlines and growing to-do lists are even more uncomfortable.

Interruptions are a fact of work life, so use these strategies to manage and minimize them to the best of your ability.

Photo Credit: montysavage (Flickr)

Does Education Still Matter? Yes and No

Today, I’d like to address the age-old question of education and employment. What’s the correlation? And, given today’s economy, how much does education matter?

Unfortunately, the answer isn’t perfectly clear.

I hear from a lot of people who are unemployed or underemployed, and they always want to know: Should I take advantage of this time by going back to school?

My answer, again, is usually pretty vague: It depends.

I know what you’re thinking: “Okay, Chrissy. Seriously. Why am I reading this article if you aren’t going to provide any solid, clear-cut answers?”

I hear you. So let me provide a little context:

Most of you have probably heard this often-cited statistic regarding income: For every year of higher education you receive, you can expect to earn an additional $10,000 in annual salary.

Sounds pretty good, right?

The U.S. Census Bureau has released data supporting this theory:

Workers 18 and over sporting bachelors degrees earn an average of $51,206 a year, while those with a high school diploma earn $27,915. But wait, there’s more. Workers with an advanced degree make an average of $74,602, and those without a high school diploma average $18,734.

Fair enough. But let’s not forget that college costs money.  The New York Times reported that the average college debt at graduation was $24,000 in 2009.

So, the added income comes with a price tag of its own. But surely that degree will practically guarantee your employment, right?

In 2010, CNN reported that 85% of recent college grads moved back in with their parents due to employment woes.

Research shows that, back in the 1990s, a college degree was a great shield from unemployment. Those with higher education were practically immune! These days, while not completely immune to it, college graduates do still have a significantly lower unemployment rate. According to the Huffington Post:

The unemployment rate of college graduates who are at least 25 years old is just 4.1 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In contrast, 13.8 percent of high school dropouts, 8.7 percent of high school graduates, and 7.7 percent of college dropouts are unemployed.

So clearly, having a degree reduces your chance of unemployment dramatically. However, according to that same Huffington Post article, “College graduates and advanced degree holders, once they are unemployed, are as vulnerable as high school dropouts to long-term joblessness, a new study has found.”

All of this information yields one conclusion: There’s no easy answer.

Yes, a college degree is helpful on many levels, but it’s no guarantee. It’s an investment of time and money and (hopefully) it will pay off in the log-run. Most employers, when choosing between two candidates with equal experience, will opt for the one with higher education…much of the time, but not always.

All that being said, I have my own feelings about college degrees. Personally, I have a Bachelor’s in Business Administration and Marketing. But I can tell you this: When I graduated from college, I knew very, VERY little about the real world of business and even less about the real world of marketing.

A college degree rarely teaches what you need to know for actually doing the job. What it DOES teach you is patience, hard work, and persistence. It proves you’re able to commit to something. It shows you know how to play the game, follow the rules and finish what you start, even when it’s hard. These are the qualities employers are looking for. And these are the qualities that will serve you well in any career.

But you still have a lot to learn. Your degree doesn’t really mean you know more than the next guy. Experience is often more valuable in learning the nitty-gritty, practical, everyday operations of your chosen career path.

So keep a realistic perspective about it. Don’t go into it thinking that college will change everything. Don’t convince yourself that a degree makes you invincible.

I know you have thoughts on this! Share them in the comments.

Photo Credit: Charline Tetiyevsky (Flickr)

Free Coaching Call: April 2012

In case you missed it, I held my free coaching call for the month of April earlier this week. You can listen to the recorded version using the audio player below.

Please Note: We’ll me taking the month of May off due to a few big projects I have in the works.

If you’d like to participate in the next call happening Thursday, June 7, please register and submit a question by visiting this page. As usual, if you can’t attend the live session, go ahead and register and submit a question if you have one. I’ll send a link to the recorded version to all who register so you can listen at your convenience. Now THAT’S great service, isn’t it?? Enjoy!

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Passed Over for a Promotion: How to Deal

On a recent free coaching call, I heard from a loyal blog reader who was feeling distraught. In a nutshell, her situation was this:

After interviewing for almost six months, she thought it as a “sure thing” that she’d be offered a new position in her department. Then, as if from nowhere, an external candidate was selected for the role. After all the time and energy she had committed to this, she was left feeling frustrated, demotivated and betrayed. This forward-thinking professional was looking for a few creative ways to overcome those negative feelings as she tried to determine what her next career steps should be.

Tough situation, huh?

I felt for this person. It’s never easy to be passed over for a job, but when it’s right there in front of you—at your current place of employment—it can feel like a slap in the face. How can you help but think about it every time you see this new person? How can you help but ask yourself, “What does she have that I don’t have?”

For those of you who are in similar situations, here’s what I suggest:

1. Remove the Emotion

I know it’s easy to get down on yourself, down on your company, and down on this person who snagged the role from beneath you, but don’t get wrapped up in those emotions. Take a little time to vent and wallow in the disappointment, then move on. It’s a new day. This is business, after all. Things can change in the blink of an eye. The situation might look bleak today, but new opportunities are just around the corner. Don’t beat yourself—or anyone else—up.

2. Get the Scoop

Politely and professionally address the situation with the hiring manager. Ask if he or she can share some of the reasons you weren’t selected. It’s perfectly fine to tell this person that you’re disappointed; you felt your skills and experience were a match for this role. However, make sure they understand that you respect the final decision and you’re only looking to grow from the experience.

Ask what you can do to be better prepared the next time an opportunity like this comes around. Try to get specifics here: Are you lacking certain skills required for this kind of role? Do you need more education or more hands-on experience? The more you know, the more proactive you can be.

3. Create a Plan

Once you know what you need to be better positioned for future growth, create a plan. Use my Build Your Professional Development Plan workbook to help you outline specific goals and the dates by which you will complete them. Focusing your attention on this will also help you release any of that negativity that still remains. Nothing feels more satisfying and rewarding than progress.

4. Shift Your Mindset

Have you ever had an experience where something appeared on the surface to be a horrible, negative thing but then, after some time passed, you suddenly realized it was a blessing in disguise? What if that’s what’s happening here? What blessing might be hiding underneath this bad situation? Look for the opportunity here. Remember, you always find what you’re looking for, so focus on the positive potential.

5. Find an Advocate

Whether we like it or not, the workplace is full of politics. People trade favors and help make things happen for people they like. It’s not always a bad thing…it’s just the way the world works. Why not use that to your advantage? Find someone who really believes in you and supports your efforts to grow. Ask for their help making it happen. They might not be able to do anything specific now; but perhaps in the future, they’ll have the ear of a decision-maker. Maybe just knowing they’re on your side will help you stay positive. Having an ally always feels good. Find those people who know your worth and keep them close. Continually reinforce your value and remember to give them support as well. This is a two-way street.

For anyone who’s experienced this kind of thing, I hope my advice here helps. Keep your chin up and look to the future. Great things are ahead of you, I promise.

Is a Career Change Possible in this Economy?

People ask me this question all the time.  I think it’s silly but, obviously, there’s a great deal of concern out there. So, I want to address this issue once and for all.

Yes, career change is absolutely possible—regardless of the state of the economy.

There. I said it.

But I know it takes more than that to convince you.

I recently had the honor of interviewing Dick Bolles, author of “What Color Is Your Parachute?” Here’s what he says:

In the best of economic times, there are always millions of people out of work. And, the corollary to that is that, in the worst of times, there are always millions of people that find jobs. I looked at a typical month during the high of the recession, which was April of 2009, and 4 million people found jobs that month and there were 3 million vacancies that didn’t even get filled that month. So there are always a lot of jobs available…

The world’s foremost authority on finding work says there’s plenty of opportunity out there. That should make you feel at least a little better.

But I know it’s still risky. It’s always risky, regardless of the economy. Sure, 4 million people got work. But millions more didn’t.

So it can be tempting to stay put, no matter how unhappy you are. You have a job. It’s a paycheck. Shouldn’t you just focus on the fact that you’re employed? Isn’t that good enough?

Sure. You could live your life like that. You could settle for less than what you want—and rightfully deserve—simply because it’s easy. Or maybe because you don’t believe in yourself. Or perhaps because you don’t believe anything else would be better…

You could let fear drive your decisions. You could sacrifice your hopes and dreams because there’s a chance it just won’t work out.

Hey, it’s cool. There’s no shame in it. That’s your choice.

And yes, it’s always a choice.

But don’t convince yourself that staying put is any less risky. That’s risky in a whole different way.

When you sacrifice the happiness that could be for the unhappiness that is, you risk never knowing what could have been. You risk regret.

Maybe you tell yourself, “Next year…when the economy’s better…when life isn’t so hectic…maybe then I’ll make a change.”

The risk is that such a time will never come.

So it’s really a question of which risk you’re willing to take.

Millions of people have successfully changed careers since the start of the recession. Millions more will do so this year. Perhaps you will be one of them.

It’s not easy. But then, change never is—regardless of the economy.

Now that I got that off my chest, let’s get practical and tactical.

I’ve written a lot about this in the past, so here’s some recommended reading to help ease a career transition (in any economy):

Lastly, if you’re considering making a career change in the near future, take advantage of this free training webinar: Job Search Success Secrets. It will help you plan, prepare and execute a seamless career transition plan.

Photo Credit: kern.justin (Flickr)

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