Five ways to successfully manage interruptions at work

Would you be surprised to learn that when you are distracted while working, you can make mistakes when you get back to your intended task? The results of a study by the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that you also have a greater chance of “resuming at a different point in [your] train of thought” then if you had not been interrupted. Perhaps the most telling thing the researchers discovered is that even quick interruptions of less than three seconds made participants more likely to make a mistake.

They reported:

… when their attention was shifted from the task at hand for a mere 2.8 seconds, they became twice as likely to mess up … the error rate tripled when the interruptions averaged 4.4 seconds.

Interruptions seem to be a part of everyone’s daily work life and they can come in a variety of forms: a request from a colleague, a phone call from a client, or even your own desire to do something other than what you’re supposed to be doing. All of these moments stop you from fully focusing on your important tasks. It’s not that those other things may not also be worthy of your attention. They very well may be, but when you attend to them is essential to how productive you can be.

Since shifting your focus even for short periods of time has a direct effect on the quality of your work, it makes sense to:

Figure out what your regular interruptions are

Are there interruptions that happen frequently during your day? Do specific people continually seek your attention causing you to pause what you’re doing? Do you respond to all phone calls and emails immediately? Take a few minutes to jot down all the things that tend to take your focus away from your intended tasks.

Come up with a game plan

No matter what the interruptions are, you can thwart them with a strategic game plan. Create a time plan so you can manage your tasks. By doing this, you’ll be able to set realistic timeframes for working on your to-do’s and setting your schedule accordingly.

Share your calendar with others. Make your schedule available to colleagues so they’ll know when you’ll have time available to meet or talk with them. You may still get interrupted, but hopefully your colleagues will begin to request your attention when they know you’re not otherwise occupied.

Use friendly, but direct reminders. When you do get interrupted, consider using statements such as:

  • “I’m working on a project that is making my brain spin and requires a lot of focus. Can we meet this afternoon at 3:00 to discuss your matter in detail? I’ll be much more helpful to you then when my mind isn’t filled with this project.”
  • “Unfortunately, I’m swamped today finishing project X so we can meet the deadline. I won’t be able to help today. Have you talked to Sally? I know she has been interested in getting involved in a project such as this.”
  • “I’d like to help, but if you need an answer today, I’ll have to to say no.”

You can also post a sign on your office door (if you have one) or cubicle panel, and you can even wear one. When I worked in the corporate world, my workspace was in a highly trafficked area and it wasn’t unusual for someone to tap me on the shoulder with a request. Since I didn’t have a door that I could close, I sometimes wore a sign that said something like: “I’m not here. I’ll back at 3 pm.” Of course, I explained to others in the office what I was doing so that they wouldn’t be caught off guard or be put off by my sign.

Control self-imposed distractions. Remove the temptation to share your attention with unimportant activities by turning off email notifications, silencing your phone, or forwarding your calls to voicemail or another person. You can also use a browser extension like Leechblock to block your favorite websites while you work on your most important projects.

Stop interruptions before they happen

Planning ahead is a great way to limit distractions before they occur. Is a teammate, project manager, or client waiting on information from you? If the next action lies with you, consider completing it ahead of schedule — before they contact you with a reminder. This is a win-win solution for everyone and you’ll be rewarded with a solid block of focused time. Additionally, you can be proactive and keep others up-to-date with your project by communicating with them first, and on your schedule. When others are well-informed of your progress, they won’t interrupt you to see how you’re doing.

Use strategies to help you get back on track

Whether you need to take a phone call or reply to an urgent email, try to keep your time away as short as possible. And, think about writing down your thoughts before you stop working so you have a frame of reference for when you return. You could leave yourself a note with your voice recorder or you can type in your last train of thought directly in the document you’re composing.

When possible, go to another location

If you find that you’re getting an influx of interruptions, find a different workspace (if possible). Pick an alternate location that allows you focus and get stuff done (library, local cafe, co-working office, conference room).

6 Comments for “Five ways to successfully manage interruptions at work”

  1. posted by Jon on

    Great post! I would love to see a photo of you wearing your “I’m not here” sign from back in your corporate days. That honestly is a great idea. I am blessed to have an office and close my door when I need some distraction free time. I have also shifted to an early morning schedule and enjoy 2-3 hours of work time at the office before anyone arrives. I have also learned to stand and/or walk during all conversations with colleagues. It keeps the conversation moving and to the point.

  2. posted by Carlee on

    I can’t seem to finish a single task without being interrupted. For the past few months, I’ve been keeping a log to track my work day and almost every single task is split into two or more entries due to interruptions.

    There’s really not much I can do about it because my bosses will interrupt me to ask for help on this or that, but I also have coworkers with quick questions or delivery men dropping off mail/boxes to contend with. I sit in a cubicle so there’s no real way for me to keep people away until designated times. Utilizing the hour in the morning before my bosses arrive, or when everyone else goes to lunch, does help.

  3. posted by Tasmanian on

    Ummm… my distractions are three small children. My strategy is to take a deep breath, turn to them, smile, and try to focus on their needs for a few moments. It’s hard to be patient but I know it is important!

  4. posted by SJ on

    A colleague told me that in her department they agreed on a policy to limit personal interruptions when someone needed to concentrate: they created a sign of a yak with a slashed circle over it, labelled “no yak zone”. When the sign was up, no interruptions were allowed. Since it was only used occasionally, it was very effective.

  5. posted by KarenM on

    So, those of us who have interruption built into their jobs are doomed to perform bad work.

    I work at a public service desk at a college where busyness alternates from mob scenes with long lines to occasional 5- minute stretches of down time. Naturally, because we are public, the perception is that down-time is dominant, and we are thus expected to multitask with highly detailed data-entry tasks at all times. This involves clearing a computer screen to use the same program to deal with the next student.

    Nearly as soon as I find my way back to the screen I was working on, another customer shows up, I have to save and exit, address the customer’s need, and then instantly (Ha!) find my way back to what I was working on. Dozens of times per hour.

    I sometimes walk away from my desk wondering what happened to my brain, and wondering just how accurate a job I did. But pausing at the desk to clear one’s head is perceived as sloth.

  6. posted by ChrisD on

    I once worked in an office which housed the main printer, so people were always coming to pick up print outs and they would always have a chat. Then we would chat amongst ourselves, the perception was that work happened in the lab and you were only in the office to eat/drink/relax and it was not a work area. It was a self fulfilling perception. When one person had to write a report there, hanging a sign on her back was an essential and effective method to reduce interruptions. (I eventually got a new printer and had it put in the foyer. Further to walk, but you could finally work in our office).

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