© Jan Jasper; 2001-2012
One of the biggest complaints I hear from people is that they can't work for more than a few minutes without being
interrupted. The result? A small project ends up taking all day, or you have to work evenings or weekends because that's
the only time it's quiet and you're not interrupted. An open-door policy sounds good in theory, but it can produce so many
walk-in interruptions that it's hard to get anything done. And it's becoming clearer that being always reachable by email
is having terrible effects on many
people's productivity. The other extreme is equally unwise -- if you block off
interruptions for several hours, a small problem you could have handled might turn into a crisis because you couldn't
be reached. You need a balance between controlling interruptions and staying informed.
Don't be at the Mercy of Email
For many people, the biggest interruption is no longer people physically dropping in, rather it's email. We all need at least
an hour or two a day when we can concentrate on work, free of email interruptions. If you're concerned that someone
might need to reach you in an emergency, give them your cell phone number and assign them a distintive ring. This lets you allow most
incoming calls go to voice mail, yet if you hear the distinctive ring of an urgent call, you can pick up. The larger problem
for many people is that obsessively checking email has become a form of procrastination that masquerades as work. Turn of your
chime so you don't hear incoming emails. If you still can't resist email's siren song, unplug your network cable or turn off
the wireless card.
Dealing with Self-Interruption
Even without email, the internet is an ever-present temptation which is very hard to control. If you must be online to do
your work, put obstacles between you and your self-interrupting habits. Make it harder to obsessively check the news, the
price of your favorite stock, shopping sites, and look up childhood friends on Linked In - delete shortcuts to your favorite
programs to make it just a little harder to surf needlessly. Many of us could get our work done in less time if we actually
focused on it, free of these distractions.
Discouraging Drop-in Visitors
Back to the physical world - When someone pokes their head in and asks "got a minute?" Reply "not now, unless it's urgent."
Then set a time to meet them later - and set an ending time, too. If you've told someone you're available between 4:10 and
4:25 they can't be
offended if you walk them to the door at 4:25. Should you choose to speak with them right then, stand to greet them and
remain standing - your visitor is unlikely to sit. State how much time you have - odd numbers like "I have seven minutes"
make it clear that your time is limited. For a visitor who merits a sit-down meeting, try this: After you've covered what
you need to, politely signal "time to go" by glancing at your watch, shuffling some papers, or picking up the phone. If
your visitor ignores these cues, stand up and say, "That's it, then! Thank you for coming in," and walk over to her and edge her
towards the door.
If you have very frequent drop-in visitors, perhaps the layout of your office invites interruptions. If you're next to
the water cooler or copy machine, you need to add a visual and noise buffer. A strategically placed partition, even a large
a file cabinet or potted plant can shield you. If your desk faces a busy hallway where people congregate, turn your desk
at an angle to avoid eye contact with passersby. If you have a comfortable chair next to your desk, replace it with a hard,
uninviting one, or remove the chair altogether. If chairs must stay, keep stuff on them, and don't move the stuff so the
visitor can sit down unless he or she has a valid claim on more than a minute of your time - people who can't find a place
to sit will not linger long. I've heard a story about a man who sawed an inch off of the front two legs of his guest
chair - visitors' calf muscles soon tired of the effort required to keep them from sliding forward off their chair!
I don't know if it's true, but it's inspiring, isn't it? Another option is to meet in the other person's office so you
can leave when you choose.
Try Closed-Door Work Sessions
You can also control interruptions by establishing closed-door times, for say, two hours. Put a sign on your door (or on the
outside wall of your cubicle) that you aren't to be interrupted unless it's an emergency. Use voice mail, or your secretary
if you're fortunate enough to have one, to screen calls. Quiet hours work best when they're department-wide (even company wide)
and at the same time.
Identify Causes and Patterns
Look for patterns in the interruptions -- log your interruptions for a week. Note who, when, the reason,
and how long. At end of the week, study the log to see which interruptions were unnecessary, and which could have been prevented
by better planning or better communication.
People don't always interrupt out of thoughtlessness or a desire to socialize. If you're rarely available, people
will interrupt you because they know they must grab you when they can. The solution is to schedule regular check-in
times for updates from people you must talk to often; and ask them to save up their questions so they can cover several
points at once. Your assistant could check in with you three times a day instead of 20. Make sure you give
sufficiently detailed instruction to co-workers so they don't have to keep coming back to you with questions. Also,
give them some leeway - empower those you delegate to so they can decide some things on their own. Make it clear what
questions are serious enough to warrant coming back to you, and let them use their judgment on the rest.
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of Take Back Your Time: How to Regain Control of Work, Information, & Technology (St. Martin's Press)."
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