How to get work done in the interruption economy

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

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, interruptions can break your focus, meaning that you have to spend time re-engaging with the thought processes needed to successfully complete complex work.
Plan for interruptions

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. There will be times when your assistance, knowledge, or presence will be required unexpectedly.

Take control

No one is going to protect your time for you. It’s your responsibility. 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. 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 need 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.

Use time blocking

Time blocking is building a barricade around a specific task and not allowing other tasks or activities to interfere. Don’t let your cell phone distract you—put it away—and let coworkers know that you be checking email or your phone after you’ve completed your block of time.

Have some go-to phrases

It’s difficult to determine the priority level of an interruption, so it’s best to find out early enough in the conversation so that adjustments can be made quickly and graciously. Have a phrase or question that you always use to start (and end) a conversation when you’re too busy to talk—a simple, nonthreatening query designed to get to the point of the interruption quickly and appropriately, so you can take the necessary action. For example, when you see someone coming toward you, say:

  • What can I do for you?
  • What brings you around this way?
  • How may I help you?
  • What is it you need?
  • I’m in the middle of something right now—can I check back with you tomorrow
  • I’m swamped right now, can you send me a meeting request?

When a person interrupts you, they seldom begin by telling you what type of interruption they are. In essence you’re transferring ownership of the conversation over to the interruption person.

Refocusing after an interruption

Of course, while you can minimize interruptions, you can’t always avoid them altogether, particularly when a time-sensitive issue arises. When the inevitable occurs, here’s how to quickly get back on track.

If you’re brainstorming
Though your first instinct might be to drop everything and respond, pause for 20 seconds and jot down a handful of key words so you won’t lose your ideas altogether. If it’s helpful, include arrows of how they connect or any other symbols to jog your memory. It doesn’t have to look pretty or make sense to anyone else—all that matters is that you can piece together your thoughts when you sit back down to work.

If you’re writing
One of the most frustrating things about being disturbed when you’re writing is feeling like you had a rhythm and now you’ve lost it.
Instead of expecting yourself to pick up where you left off, set aside a few minutes to go back and re-read the last few paragraphs you’ve written. Use this time to make mental notes of what you were thinking or where you were going next and let them guide you back on track.

If you can’t refocus
Sometimes refocusing just isn’t possible. Maybe you’re on edge about being disturbed or just feel like you lost your mojo. In this case, don’t force it. Allow yourself a little time to decompress and stand up, walk around, or go get a cup of coffee. It’s space for you to ease back into thinking about the project again so you’ll be able start fresh when you get back to your desk.

Unfortunately, interruptions happen, so it’s how you deal with them that matters. Be proactive and have some smart strategies to get back on track, and you’ll be more productive (not to mention nicer to your colleagues).