People Interruptions

So I’ve been thinking about all the interruptions I have during my day: emails, phone calls, visitors, noisy neighbors, meetings, and all the ideas and things that pull my attention away.  How can I manage this stuff better?We work with people everyday, paticularly if we are in an office setting so shutting everyone out is not a long-term solution.  What to do?

Strategies for various interruptions depend on the type of distraction.  Emails and phone calls are unique categories and have been discussed previously.  So let’s look at the people side of interruptions.

Visitors are a fact of life and can be great sources of information, assistance and distractions.  The person stopping by may have information you need, feedback that helps move a project along, a resource to help complete a project or they may just have the latest gossip.  If you are focused on getting something done how to handle these best?  One option is to stop what you are doing, talk to the person and then work to get back in the flow once they are gone.  If you are not in a critical work period this may be great.  If you need to focus on the task at hand you have a couple of options to get them to move on without hurt feelings.

  1. If they are just there to chat, suggest another time to get together like lunch, coffee break or after work.
  2. If they have information you need you can get it, thank them and tell them you want to put it into action right away.  This will typically get them moving.
  3. When people come by to offer assistance, take a moment to review what they can do and then:
    1. Delegate appropriate items with clear expectations and let them go back to their desk and get to it.
    2. If more time is needed to develop a plan, schedule time later to get back together to go over the details.

One other option is to prevent visitors during critical work times.  If you have an office, close the door for an hour if needed.  This will discourage most people from interrupting you.  Typically you will not get away with a closed door all day, however if you use the method strategically it works well.  In some offices the culture will allow you to put something across your cubicle opening to simulate a closed door.  This is very culture dependent so proceed with caution.  Another way is to keep you back to your door or cubicle opening and just glance up when someone stops by.  If you keep your hands hovering near the keyboard and you don’t fully face the person they should get the hint that now is not a good time.

To handle noisy neighbors it can be very useful to have a set of headphones that you can put in when you have to concentrate.  Again, this can be culture sensitive.  I’ve worked in places that did not allow headphones, so I had to learn to tune out my neighbors.  Other places it’s okay all day or for shorter periods.

When I’ve had jobs that require attendance to lots of meetings (sometimes up to 7 – 8 hours a day) it gets difficult to find time to do actual work.  When I have critical deadlines I’ve been known to block out time on my calendar to get work done, though never more than 2 hours at a time.  This sends a signal to the people scheduling a meeting that I’m busy and forces them to ask if I could be available during that time.  I learned this technique from one of my bosses who was chronically over booked on his calendar.  The technique puts you in control of your schedule.  There’s more discussion coming on meetings as a time waster in a future post.

How do you handle the human interruptions to your work day?

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