Managing Interruptions

Maintain Focus, Keep Control of Your Time

 
Managing Interruptions

© iStockphoto/ericsphotography

Everyday interruptions at work can be a key barrier to managing your time effectively and, ultimately, can be a barrier to your success.

Think back to your last workday, and consider for a minute the many interruptions that occurred. There may have been phone calls, emails, hallway conversations, colleagues stopping by your office, or anything else that unexpectedly demanded your attention and, in doing so, distracted you from the task at-hand.

Because your day only has so many hours in it, a handful of small interruptions can rob you of the time you need to achieve your goals and be successful in your work and life. More than this, they can break your focus, meaning that you have to spend time re-engaging with the thought processes needed to successfully complete complex work.

The key to controlling interruptions is to know what they are and whether they are necessary, and to plan for them in your daily schedule. The tips that follow will help you do that, and so prevent interruptions from frustrating you and jeopardizing your success.

Using the Tool

Use the following tips to understand and manage interruptions:

1. Keep An Interrupters Log

If interruptions consistently rob you of time and energy, or if they frequently push you off schedule and cause delays, it's time to keep an Interrupters Log. This is a simple record of the interruptions you experience in the course of a day.

Click here to download our free Interrupters Log Worksheet. Figure 1 shows an example of it.

Figure 1: The Interrupters Log

Person Date and Time Description of Interruption Valid? Urgent?
         
         
         
         

Keep your Interrupters Log with you every day for at least a week, recording every interruption you experience, and marking down the person interrupting you; the date and time it occurs; what the interruption is; whether it was valid; and whether it was urgent (or whether someone could have waited until a better time.)

Once you have recorded the interruptions for a week, sit down with your log and analyze the information.

Which interruptions are valid and which are not?

You need to deal with the valid interruptions. We'll show you below how you can schedule them into your day so that they get the attention they need, while you still have the time you need to adequately address your daily work.

As for the interruptions that are not valid, you must find a way to block these out in the future.

2. Analyze and Conquer Interruptions

To analyze and conquer the interruptions you find in your Interrupters Log, firstly look at whether the interruption is valid or not.

Could someone have avoided interrupting you by waiting for a routine meeting? Or was it something they should have asked you about at all?

If not, deal with this politely but assertively  .

Next, look at how urgent the interruptions were, and whether they could have been pre-empted. You can pre-empt many interruptions by holding routine meetings with people: If they're confident that they'll have access to you at a defined point in the near future, they'll learn to save up non-urgent issues until this meeting.

However, some interruptions are both urgent and valid. You need to be interrupted, and you need to deal with the situation.

From your Interrupters Log, you'll see how much time is taken up by these urgent, valid interruptions. Block this time into your schedule as "contingency time", and only take on as much other work as you can fit into the remaining time. You'll have to juggle this other work around the interruptions, but at least you won't be overloaded and stressed by the things that you haven't done because they've been displaced by emergencies.

3. Put Your Phone to Work for You (Not Against You)

A little bit of planning can go a long way in working to control telephone interruptions, which many people experience all day long. If you are on a deadline or your focus needs to be intense (and not interrupted), use your voice mail to screen calls, or have an assistant deal with messages for you. This way, you can deal with calls by priority, and at times that suit you. In fact, this telephone time can be planned into your schedule, and so become a normal part of your working day.

4. Catch Your Breath

When interrupted, it's easy to get caught up in the "rush" of the person who is interrupting, for they undoubtedly feel their request is urgent. In reality, however, most interruptions are not genuinely crisis-driven, and it can serve everyone best to take a little time before taking action.

Take a few minutes to consider the situation. Catch your breath and clear your head. A small delay, even one of just a few minutes, goes a long way in assessing the situation accurately and reacting appropriately.

5. Learn to Say "No"

It's often acceptable to say "no" to requests or tasks if you are busy when someone else can handle it, if it is not an important task, or if it can be done later.

When this is the case, saying "no" in a courteous and sincere way, followed by a short explanation is the best course of action to take: "I am working against a very tight deadline on an important project right now so, I am sorry, but I can not jump in and help".

6. "Available" and "Unavailable" Time

Simple yet effective: Let people know when you are available. and when you are not. Make sure that people know that during your "unavailable time", they should only interrupt you if they have to.

You and your co-workers can also agree on a signal that everyone in the office can use when unavailable, like turning the nameplate on the door around, or simply closing the door. This alleviates interruptions and can avoid hurt feelings. 

Tip:

Be careful here. If you're a manager, an important part of your job is to be available to people, to handle urgent issues which arise, and to coach your team so that people are as effective as possible.

If you put up barriers that are too high, you won't be able to do these jobs. By all means, use "unavailable time", but don't over use it, and make sure people know they can interrupt you if there is a genuine crisis.

7. "Invitation Only" Time

Schedule regular check-in times for the individuals you talk to most often. Ask these people to keep a running list of things that they need to discuss, so you can cover all the points at one time. And, force yourself to do the same.

An open-door policy is good, but you should limit the number of people you invite to your work area. For instance, if you're scheduling a meeting, offer to meet your co-worker in his or her office or a conference room. This way, you can excuse yourself after you accomplish your purpose. Additionally, it's much easier to get up and leave than it is to get people to leave your office once they're seated and comfortable.

8. Uncontrollable Interruptions

There are interruptions that, no matter how hard you try, you simply cannot control.

Most people are happy to schedule a more convenient time, but when this does not work, quickly set the parameters by saying something like, "I only have five minutes to talk about this right now," and stick to it.

Do not ask the interrupter to sit down and do not engage in small talk. Encourage the interrupter to get right to the point and if a solution cannot be reached before the allotted time runs out, set a time for getting back to them and, again, stick to it.

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Comments (4)
  • Tribhuwan wrote This month
    Interruptions are big waste in software development. I posted a blog article on this subject
    http://www.technodeation.com/2014/12/frequent-interruptions-for-developers.html
  • Midgie wrote Over a month ago
    Hi motheman,
    Having clear time to focus on work is indeed important. I have read somewhere that those 'have you got a minute' interruptions actually takes 20 minutes to get back into the flow of work. So, each time you are interrupted and engage with that person, rather than simply asking them to come back later, means the thing you are working on will take another 20 minutes!

    Those 'have you got a minute' 20 minutes can add up over the course of a day! And yet people wonder why they don't achieve all they want to achieve when they keep on getting interrupted.

    What strategies will you use to help maintain your focus, and minimize interruptions?

    Midgie
  • motheman wrote Over a month ago
    getting interrupted can be annoying but these are good tips for a clear head I especially like the part of me time clearly distincting time where people can focus on work
  • Yolande wrote Over a month ago
    Oh how true this is:
    When interrupted, it's easy to get caught up in the "rush" of the person who is interrupting, for they undoubtedly feel their request is urgent. In reality, however, most interruptions are not genuinely crisis-driven, and it can serve everyone best to take a little time before taking action.
    And sometimes, it makes us feel worthwhile and important when we need to help someone else out in a "crisis" ...but then it should probably be a real crisis!
    Also, having "available" and "unavailable" time is an excellent strategy which I have put to good use for myself. It goes for consultations and phone calls. And if your office is at home, like mine, you need to be very clear about these times right from the start.
    If I really don't want to be interrupted, I close my e-mail, close down Skype, switch my mobile phone to voicemail and then focus on what I want to do. Obviously I can't do this all day long every day, but there are times when I need to really concentrate my efforts and times that I am available to talk to, answer mails etc. It helps me a lot!

    Kind regards
    Yolandé

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