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Handling Interruptions
By Pamela Jett Aal   Printer Friendly Version

You bought the newest in Palm technology, invested in a planner complete with all the fillers, and are diligently attempting to follow the advice of the time management experts by planning your day the night before, prioritizing tasks and events. Now, if you could only get a handle on those pesky interruptions that seem to make all your good intentions go awry.

Regardless of job title, interruptions have an impact on every professional's day. In some job capacities interruptions occur, on average, once every two to three minutes! While eliminating interruptions from our days is not a reasonable, or even desirable, goal, it is possible to minimize the impact interruptions have on our days by implementing a few simple techniques.

In the workshops and seminars I run people frequently struggle with interruptions because they genuinely want to be of assistance and want to be seen as a team player. All of the tools that follow allow you to gain more control over your day and time while still remaining a team player.

Re-organize your workspace. It makes sense, if you face your office door or cube opening, you will attract more of the "hey, how are you?" type of interruptions. Sometimes, these interrupters linger a bit longer than one would like. If possible, consider re-arranging your workspace so that you don't face the opening. If having your back to the door sounds unappealing because you are in a leadership position and want to be seen as approachable, consider placing your desk horizontal to the door. This way you will be available, but not too available.

If re-arranging your space is not possible due to pre-formed modules, consider buying a few plants, tall if necessary, to shield you from passersby.

If you have a chair for visitors, put a stack of books, papers or other materials on the chair to discourage visitors from sitting down to chat.

Consider, if you are working on a very important project, finding an unoccupied conference room to work in for scheduled periods of time. If your boss or immediate supervisor must give approval, I suggest language such as:

I am working on next quarter's budget proposal this week. Detail and accuracy are very important. I have arranged to work in the conference room for the next two days from 10:00 until 12:00. Will that work for you?

The worst thing that could happen is they would say no. Then, you are simply right back where you started with nothing lost.

While these ideas will not completely eliminate the passerby interruptions, they can minimize them.

Establish a signal. Are you frequently interrupted by something trivial when you are in the middle of something very urgent or important? Do you feel frustrated and wonder; "don't they know that now is not a good time?" Try establishing a signal. One that people will recognize before they interrupt you.

Some popular signals include: a do not disturb sign posted on the door or cube opening, a red flag placed in a bud vase and placed in a readily visible spot, a paper clock indicating when you will be available. I have even seen people put police tape across their cube opening to discourage interruptions. Recognize that people don't always know that "now is not a good time" and clarify that for them.

Refine your communication skills. Often it is not the fact that we are interrupted that is the problem. It is the time the interruption takes. We would like to answer a person's questions as quickly as possible and get back to our priorities. Some basic communication skills can assist you.

If someone asks, "do you have a moment?" Set a time limit. For example, respond with, "Yes, I have 5 minutes. What may I do for you?"

This sends the message that while you are willing to assist others, your time is valuable. It also increases the likelihood that the interrupter will respect your wishes and keep the interruption as brief as possible.

You can also try to acknowledge and reschedule. For example, " I would love to be able to help you. How about at 2:00 this afternoon?" There is a chance this technique will eliminate further interruption on that particular issue because help will be found before 2:00. And, if it doesn't eliminate the interruption, it can allow you to handle the issue at a time that is more convenient for you.

Refine your nonverbal communication skills. Messages have both a verbal and a nonverbal component and we can use some subtle nonverbal cues to suggest to the interrupter that now is not a good time. If you are seated, try standing up. If you are standing, try sitting down. This suggests to your interrupter that it is time to wind the conversation up. If you are caught away from your office, suggest that you walk and talk at the same time. Then, when you arrive at your office, use a closing statement such as "is there anything else I may do for you?"

These tools have a proven track record. They are working for professionals just like yourself who want to increase their productivity while remaining a team player. Choose one, at minimum to experiment with today.

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