4 Simple Questions to Help You Conquer Work Interruptions

Posted by Cathy Reilly

iStock-stress free interruptions blog 510231582.jpgPaying attention is essential to getting anything done, but it’s tough when your attention is constantly interrupted. Quoting Susan Cain from her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking “Another study, of 38,000 knowledge workers across different sectors, found that the simple act of being interrupted is one of the biggest barriers to productivity.”

Unfortunately, it seems like interruptions are multiplying exponentially in our hyper-connected world. Phone calls, voicemails, emails, text messages, unexpected visitors, impromptu meetings and minor emergencies disrupt our focus. Our attention spans are short enough, 8.25 seconds in fact, per the National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine. That’s less than a goldfish, who averages 9 seconds!

Add to this, the fact that we are NOT actually able to multi-task. It might look like multi-tasking, but the brain is switching back and forth between multiple tasks. This reduces productivity and increases mistakes by up to 50%. But, interruptions derail our train of thought and force us to try and multi-task.

These intrusions break thought patterns and the flow of creativity. They overextend our brainpower and distract us from solving problems. They add more stress to our day and zap our Zen.

When you have a habit of working with too many interruptions, you run the risk of becoming immune to them and therefore too accepting of them. But, if the “Got a minute?” requests have gotten out of hand (Beware: they come in many non-verbal forms too, as mentioned above), it may be time to set a new course for 2017, reclaim your workday and become empowered with important time to think.

Here are 4 questions to ask yourself to start conquering interruptions:

  1. Who is interrupting me?  It’s usually a small and steady set of coworkers who believe your time is their time. Are they over-relying on you? Do they need more training or resources to help stand on their own? Do you keep interrupting your own flow by trying to do too much at once? 

Solution: Make sure employees are clear on the resources they have. While you want to be thoroughly supportive, you must also carefully manage your own time. You can’t be all things to all people and everyone doesn’t automatically get a front row seat in your day.

Create valuable resources (technical where possible with cheat-sheets, references and handouts or assign other team members as resources) for the routine/non-urgent matters employees bring to you. This will be beneficial in numerous ways – a) it helps the employee work and think more independently rather than relying upon you simply because it’s easier for them. b) it preserves your time and focus for the most important and urgent matters, c) it elevates team members to becoming additional key resources or experts to others who need help. d) it brands your time as valuable and reinforces your boundaries.

Be aware of how you may be your own worst enemy with interruptions that you either allow or create for yourself. Remain focused each day on the priorities you need to get done. Tackle task by task in full so you don't create your own interruptions jumping back and forth between them. Otherwise, you wind up with lots going on, but nothing finished. An effective habit is to tackle the things you least like to do first, to get them out of the way and move on to the things you enjoy more.

  1. What are the interruptions about?  Are people coming to you with low priority or low importance matters? Why are they coming to you specifically? Should they be going elsewhere (i.e., online, company resources, intranet, other employees, supervisors, or departments)? Everyone wants their issue addressed quickly, but you should not be at everyone’s beck and call, or you become the over-relied upon, immediate quick-fix. In the long run, this hurts you on the job and is usually quite unsustainable. It's OK to realize that sometimes others need to wait. And sometimes you need to let others figure things out on their own.

Solution: Learn to identify the nature of the interruptions, their associated urgency and importance level. Assess the trends and needs to develop new systems, processes or resources when appropriate. This will cut down on the constant tugs on your sleeves.

Speak with employees about their approach to tasks or challenges. Some employees have a knee-jerk reaction and immediately tag everything as both urgent and important when they come up. (Like the boy who cried “Wolf” at every instance).

While a wolf may show up every now and again, it's not every day. Not everything is critical or high priority. Some employees simply overreact. Help them learn to prioritize tasks and issues. Help them understand how to take next steps in seeking solutions instead of instantly relying on you or others. Make sure employees know which issues they need to address immediately, what can wait, what they can handle, or when they need to escalate an issue. Let them know it’s alright to take a breath and think before they act.

  1. When am I getting interrupted?  Are you getting interrupted more at one time of day than another, like first thing in the morning, right before/after lunch, end of day, or right before/after meetings? Track your interruptions for one week. You’ll be surprised at how much of your time interruptions consume.

Solution: Keep a small notepad handy. Divide the page into 3 Sections: “Before Noon”,
“Noon til 3 pm” and “After 3 pm”. Track the timing of your interruptions for a week. What trends do you see? When could you have easily avoided, eliminated, or minimized the interruption? How long are the interruptions (5-10 minutes or longer)? This data ties into the “who” and “what” solutions suggested above.

Determine if there are certain times of the day when you need to work with your office door closed – and close it. Use an “In Conference” sign or something similar on your door if you must. 

If you’re in a cubicle or open space, make it known that barring emergencies, you’re not available at certain times. Infuse a sense of humor with an “On Air”, “Out of Office”, or “Closed for the Season” sign. When you have no door to close and nowhere to “hide”, these will lightheartedly get the point across. If possible, move to an available quiet space when you can.

  1. Where do I get interrupted?  Do certain areas in your workplace facilitate interruptions? Are you getting stuck in the coffee room, cafeteria, colleague’s desks, break areas or meeting rooms where you know it's likely you'll get sidelined?

Solution: While business and social interaction around the office is highly important and you must be out and about throughout your day, be aware of places that may be settings for unnecessary interruptions or extended time drains.

Know what boundaries you need to establish to traverse your work environment freely without fear of getting pulled by too many interruptions along the way. Learn to say “No” to the “Got a minute?” question or offer to schedule a brief meeting or a call at a time that works for you both. (Again, barring anything urgent!). When meetings are over, avoid unnecessary lingering since it may be an opportunity for yet more interruptions to your getting back to what’s next on your agenda for the day.

 Go one step further . . . 

As a manager or member of HR, you can even go another step regarding work interruptions. Because you are an influencer inside your company, incorporate respect and consideration for other’s time in the workplace as part of the company culture. This won’t happen overnight, but your example through dialogue, action, and integrating company resources that are time and interruption-saving is a strong start.

Perhaps a modification to the golden rule for all to follow might be sufficient: “Interrupt others as you would like to be interrupted.”

How is respect for employee’s time shown inside your company?

Topics: Management, Human Resources

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