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How productive did you feel last week? If you got less done than you'd hoped....what kept you from staying on task?  For many people, a constant stream of interruptions is the biggest hurdle to productivity.  So, here's some advice for preventing unnecessary interruptions from taking more than their fair share of your upcoming week.

According to a study published by Cubesmart, Inc, we experience on average, one interruption every 8 minutes or approximately 6-7 per hour.  That equals about 50-60 interruptions is an 8 hour day, 60-70 in a 10 hour day.  Most interruptions take approximately 5-15 minutes. If you receive 50 interruptions daily and each takes 10 minutes, that totals 500 minutes, which is 8 hours per day.

Ouch!..no wonder you feel the need to work 12 hours per day....8 handling interruptions, and 4 getting your work done after hours.

The reality is, not all interruptions are high value and most don't actually need your immediate attention.  There are three types:

  • Critical and truly urgent (your boss needing help with a key client ready to close a deal, a direct report who needs guidance to avert a disaster.); 
  • Important matters, but not really urgent (a colleague needing advice, a direct report with a mentoring question; a client with a long-term request);
  • Complete misuse of your time (requests for information the person could easily access elsewhere, fire drills for futile crises, venting sessions, poorly timed social chit-chat.)

So why do we take the interruptions?  Cognitive studies on interruptions show that most of us allow and even encourage interruptions to take place and to take precedence over other tasks. We often respond quickly to these interruptions, as it gives us a feeling of closure, knowing we may not have to address this issue in the immediate future. In other words, our work lives are so chaotic and disorganized, we figure if we don't handle it now, when?

In addition, I think we invite interruptions when we are overwhelmed with our primary workload.  When looking down the barrel of an impossibly long to-do list, hesitant to make decisions amongst conflicting priorities, or struggling to complete an intimidating project, taking an interruption (whether in the form of a walk-by, phone call, or email), can give us a momentary sense of accomplishment.  Check. We got something done, even it wasn't the most important thing in the world. 

Interruptions are a part of work. The key is to be prepared, and learn not to treat every disruption equally.  Get out of instant reaction mode every time someone asks “Do you Have a Minute?”  The answer shouldn’t be an immediate YES, or an immediate NO.  Learn to discern between truly urgent matters and those which can wait.

Here are five practical techniques to help you better control the interruptions in your life:

Technique #1- Remember the Cost of interruptions

Aside from the actual time lost to the interruptions, there is additional recovery time which negatively impacts productivity. Once interrupted, it takes 20-25 minutes to regain the level of focus we had attained prior to the disruption.  In addition, close to 50% of the time, we never even get back to our original task. So a 5 minute interruption really costs you 30 minutes of time off task....and a strong possibility you'll never get it done at all. A landmark study by Basex titled "The Cost of Not Paying Attention," calculated that workplace interruptions cost the U.S. economy $588 billion a year. If the matter can wait until a more appropriate time, let it.

Technique #2 – Alternate "Open Door" hours with "Closed Door" Hours

It's impossible to put people off for an indefinite amount of time. But if the longest anyone has to wait for you to respond is 1-2 hours, it seems reasonable to ask them to wait. Try alternating one hour of focused time, one hour of open door throughout the day, and don't allow any interruptions other than true crises during your focused time. By the way, if you work in a cubical, CubeSmart makes very cool "doors" for cubicals that enable you to simulate a closed door http://www.cubedoor.com/.

Technique #3 – Ask how long it will take.

Every time you’re interrupted, ask how long the person needs (fifteen minutes? Forty-five?).  Tell them you want to know so that you can give them the focus and attention they really need.  If you can’t swing twenty minutes now, reschedule for later when you have more time.  Holding people accountable to the time they ask for helps them be more efficient too.

Technique # 4 – Begin the conversation with “What can I do for you?” not “How are you?”

“How are you?” is an open invitation to start a lengthy and casual conversation. “What can I do for you?” immediately focuses your interrupter on getting straight to the point.  It can be delivered in a friendly tone, and yet, gets you both down to business.  This enables you to handle the interruption in the least amount of time possible.

Technique #5 – Rehearse a few, comfortable "exit" lines

For non-urgent interruptions, and people that are hard to say no to, that you tend to get trapped by, be prepared with some well rehearsed lines. 

          “I’m in the middle of finishing a project, can we talk this afternoon?” 

          “Gosh, I’d love to help you out...but today is impossible.  I'm on a deadline."

“This sounds important and I want to give it my undivided attention. Right now I'm focused on this deliverable. Let's schedule a time I can fully focus on you."

It takes mindfulness and practice to become a master of interruption management. And it's worth every minute...the payoff is more actual hours to get your work done, an increased sense of control over your workday, and greater sense of accomplishment at the end of each week.

Let me know how you handle interruptions.  What kinds of unnecessary interruptions do you get caught up in?  Does it have more to do with the true urgency of the matter or your own openness to distraction from your own challenging workload? What techniques have you found to be helpful in avoiding getting caught up in the false urgencies? 

Share your strategies here.

Posted in
Comment posted on 10/04/2010 at 11:23 am
My peoblem is not interruptions, its wait time. I am on the computer all day and many tasks take from 1 to 5 minutes to run. I can't bear to just sit & stare at the screen, so I jump off to another screen or another task. Frequently its Twitter or Facebook, so tbat gets me more off task & out of focus. Not sure what to do with this one.

Comment posted on 10/04/2010 at 02:17 pm
I now send back an e-mail with a snarky URL to "Let Me Google That For You" with the search words that the interrupor used when phoning me, texting me, IM-ing me, e-mailing me, or walking into my cubicle to real-time re-prioritize me. I simply refuse to answer any informational questions that the interruptor could have found for themselves. I came to this realization when I asked one of my most frequent interruptors why he was interrupting me (for the fifth time that day) to ask me something about which I had already told him I knew nothing. His reply, "I knew that it would be quicker for me to ask you than to look it up for myself." Wow. (Don't get me started on lack of personal boundaries, rudeness, arrogance, workplace bullying-by-needless-interruption, lack of consideration, etc.)

Comment posted on 10/04/2010 at 05:44 pm
I so agree that often we allow interruptions because we are overwhelmed with a long to do list or a list of tasks that have red flags next to them! Rather than allowing the overwhelm to rule, pick the one most important one and get it done, then the next, then who will have time for distractions!!

Comment posted on 10/05/2010 at 10:41 am
I work at home now, but was at my previous office for ten years. I didn't have trouble with being interrupted but rather with having to interrupt a very busy supervisor. The nature of our work was collaborative, so I needed to check in at least every two or three days. I lost a lot of time if I walked to her office and she was busy (also I hated interrupting her if she was focused on work). I developed the habit of collecting a couple of questions or issues that I had for her and then sending her an e-mail asking when was a good time for me to come by. She was then able to reply when she had time. We had productive meetings and she started requesting that other employees contact her like that.

Comment posted on 10/05/2010 at 12:36 pm
I will have to use technique # 4 today !! I always start with 'How are you doing ?" Very useful info , thanks !!

Comment posted on 10/23/2010 at 11:30 am
Like commenter #1, I struggle with those 1-5 min. increments where I'm kept waiting. I just found a program that allows me to block myself from mindless checking of certain sites: http://theappleblog.com/2010/10/15/how-to-fight-the-dangers-of-distraction-on-your-mac/ now what to do with 1-5 min. breaks? meditate? meditate on my dream board? Do stretches? There must be something better to do! Nancy Peske http://www.nancypeske.com

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