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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)

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2 Responses to “How to Manage (and Minimize) Workplace Interruptions”

  1. Patricia says:

    I turn my email notifications off so I don’t see the emails coming in and actually have to go to my Outlook account to view them. It is hard to ignore them when you see them coming by so this has helped me tremendously. However, since it is important that I see the emails from my boss, I have set a ring tone for his emails and when I am working on a project and hear the ring, I know it is something I should check.
    I have also asked my assistant to set a one-on-one meeting with me once a week and to write down any questions she has throughout the week. If it can wait for our meeting that is great and she can ask me at our meeting, if not, then she is free to interrupt me. I try to do the same with my boss as well.
    Sometimes I just tell people I am very busy right now and can it wait. They typically go ahead and ask me anyway, so that hasn’t always worked out very well. Some people will however respect my request. I usually ask them to send me an email instead.
    At times I just keep typing and tell them who they need to speak to for the answer. I know this can come across as rude, but it really isn’t, after all they are interrupting you :)
    Of course, I am always available for my boss and he interrupts me constantly, but he is my boss after all and I am there to support him, so keeping things in perspective really helps. If your boss has asked you for an urgent request, it is also OK to remind them of their other request and ask if they want to take you away from that.
    Putting a barrier up can be helpful, but it can also come across as “I’m not available” if you leave it up all the time. I like your idea of putting an “Open for business” sign up as well even though you have your barrier up. You may just need the barrier because you are easily distracted and it helps you focus. Humour would work really well here too and you could get very creative in your sign such as “Enter at your own risk, I have a deadline to meet” with a funny cartoon on it. But don’t overuse it or people will just see you as not available all the time.
    I agree that expecting interruptions and planning for them is a good plan of action. In our role as assistants, we are there to assist so that is part of what we do and interruptions are part of that.
    I am fortunate to have a door so close it when I am typing minutes or doing something I need to concentrate on. Unfortunately, they still interrupt, but they knock first and apparently that makes it OK :) I believe the closed door probably cuts down on 50% of the interruptions and the other 50% I deal with on a one-by-one basis.
    I give webinars from my office so on those days I put a big sign DO NOT DISTURB – WEBINAR IN PROGRESS. I have never had problems with that one and in some cases, you really have to be firm as in the case of a webinar. You don’t have a choice.
    Good topic Chrissy.

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