12 MIN READ

Interruptions

10 Ways to Minimize Stops and Starts

Interruptions - 10 Ways to Minimize Stops and Starts

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Take back control of your day.

Cold calls, unexpected visitors, and co-workers stopping by your desk – the rise of remote working has removed many office interruptions.

But working from home brings new ones. Deliveries to your door, barking dogs, cameos from your kids when you're on a video call, and partners talking to their colleagues.

These interruptions can add up. Left unchecked, they can affect focus and cause deadlines to slip. This can make us feel fatigued, frustrated, and guilty because we struggle to manage ourselves or others. These feelings become interruptions in themselves, overwhelming us even more.

In this article, we'll outline 10 ways to minimize interruptions, achieve your goals, and be successful in your work and home life.

How Long Does It Take to Refocus After Being Interrupted?

A University of California study found that after each interruption it takes over 23 minutes to refocus [1]. What's more, if the interruption takes you onto something else, this multitasking can sap your brainpower – the equivalent of dropping 10 IQ points [2].

Definition of Interruptions – What Is an Interruption and What Isn't?

When something causes us to lose sight of what we're doing, it can be defined as a distraction. An interruption is a type of distraction that is deliberately drawing our attention. For example, when a colleague calls to discuss something. But it's important to note that there's a distinction between valid and invalid interruptions.

Sometimes interruptions are part of our work. If you're tasked with onboarding a new team member, for example, then you'll need to be available for contact if they get stuck. If you're a manager, it's important that your team feels comfortable to approach you when needed. Collaboration is also a fundamental part of many roles, so be aware that some interruptions may not be unwarranted.

However, if you're feeling overwhelmed by interruptions and are struggling to concentrate, the next section should help you to manage any type of interruption that comes your way.

Dealing With Interruptions

The key to managing interruptions is to know what they are and whether they're necessary, and to plan for them in your daily schedule. With these 10 tips, you can do just that:

1. Keep an Interrupters Log

By keeping an Interrupters Log, you can record the interruptions you experience day-to-day, analyze any patterns that emerge, and then decide on the best course of action to tackle these interruptions.

Click here to download our free Interrupters Log Worksheet. Figure 1, below, shows an example entry.

Figure 1 – The Interrupters Log

 

Person Date and Time Description of Interruption Valid? Urgent?
David
(co-worker)
01/02/2021 
10 a.m.
Called to discuss project updates. Yes No

Keep your Interrupters Log with you every day for at least a week. Record every interruption you experience and mark down the following:

  • The person who interrupted you.
  • The date and time it occurred.
  • What the interruption was.
  • Whether it was valid.
  • Whether it was urgent or could have waited for a better time.

By keeping the log, you can gain a better understanding of your daily interruptions, and take steps to minimize them and manage your response.

Next, we'll show you how to schedule time for the valid interruptions – so that they get the attention they need – and block the invalid interruptions.

2. Hold Routine Meetings

You can pre-empt many interruptions by holding routine meetings. If people know that they'll have access to you soon, they'll learn to save up non-urgent issues until you meet.

You should also schedule regular check-in times for the people you talk to most. Ask them to keep a running list of things they need to discuss, and do the same yourself.

By inviting colleagues' input, you'll show that you value their opinions, and can deal with issues and ideas in one focused session.

Tip:

Limit the number of people you catch up with, and do it online or in a neutral meeting space. This way, you can easily excuse yourself after things are worked out.

3. Book "Contingency" Time

From your Interrupters Log, you'll see how much time is taken up by urgent, valid interruptions. Block this time into your schedule as "contingency time," and only take on as much other work as you can fit into the remaining time.

Perhaps in your Interrupters Log you noticed that many clients called you in the morning, or that important deliveries regularly arrived in the early afternoon. By booking this as contingency time, you won't be overloaded and stressed by the things stopping you from finishing tasks.

4. Set "Available" and "Unavailable" Times

Simple yet effective: let people know when you're available – and when you're not.

Agree on a signal to use when you're unavailable, like wearing headphones in the office or setting your direct messaging (DM) app status to "Busy." This removes interruptions while avoiding hurt feelings.

Put your "unavailable time" in your shared calendar and stick to it. An hour's booked time when you're most productive will help you to clear complex tasks. Or get away from your desk to switch off for half an hour. Read our article Managing Your Boundaries for more ways to carve out your own space.

Don't overuse "unavailable time," though, and make sure that people know they can interrupt you if it's absolutely necessary. Communication is especially important for remote workers who may feel isolated.

5. Learn to Say "No"

It's OK to say "no" to a request or task if you're too busy, or if it's not your responsibility, it's not important, or it can be done later. If you say "yes" to everything, you risk burning yourself out.

Define your objectives by asking yourself, "What goal am I working toward by saying 'yes'?" If you can't answer, it might be a sign that you shouldn't be doing it.

So, push back in a courteous and sincere way with a short explanation. Try, "I'm working against a very tight deadline on an important project right now. So, I'm sorry, but I can't jump in and help this time." By being assertive, you'll be able to look after your own needs without upsetting others.

Tip:

If you're worried about saying "no," our article "Yes" to the Person, "No" to the Task teaches you ways to protect your own time while maintaining good working relationships.

6. Communicate With Your Team

Saying "no" politely is just one way you could communicate with your colleagues to manage interruptions.

It's also important to let people know what you're working on and how it fits with your team's goals. That way, you'll manage expectations about what you can help with that day, keep your team in the loop, and maintain good working relationships.

Communication is key to creating a team where everybody is working at their best. Daily scrum meetings or even a simple, clear DM status can avoid misunderstandings and keep interruptions in check.

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7. Set Your Tech to Work For You (Not Against You)

A little bit of planning can do a lot to control tech-based interruptions. If you need to focus but the phone keeps ringing, use your voicemail to screen calls. Your message can ask people to text you if it's urgent.

Set any online messaging platforms to mute, or even sign out of them. Of course, be sure to communicate with your team when and why you're doing this.

Only check your emails a few times a day, and try Phil Simon's "3 Email Rule" – if you need to send more than three emails to someone on the same subject, phone them instead. And plan the call into your schedule so it becomes part of your working day [4].

Now you can deal with messages by priority, and at times that suit you.

Tip:

Don't let distractions such as social media become interrupters while working from home. Disable all (or almost all) notifications from your smartphone, mute non-urgent DM channels, and delete social media apps from your work desktop.

8. Catch Your Breath

When interrupted, it's easy to get caught up in the rush of the person interrupting you. They probably feel their request is urgent. But chances are it's not a crisis, and it probably benefits everyone to take a little time out before acting.

A small delay, even one of just a few minutes, goes a long way toward assessing the situation accurately and reacting appropriately.

9. Tackle Unavoidable Interruptions

When you're working from home or in the office, sometimes there are interruptions that you simply can't control, no matter how hard you try.

If someone calls or approaches your desk at a busy moment, most people are happy to schedule a more convenient time. But when this doesn't work, quickly set the parameters by saying something like, "I only have five minutes to talk about this right now." And stick to it.

Ask yourself if this is an important part of your job and needs your full attention. If not, and if you can't reach a solution in five minutes, find a moment to pause the conversation and set a time for catching up – asking them to prepare questions in advance. They may resolve the issue for themselves before you need to meet.

Don't get frustrated if you can't avoid an interruption. Instead, try to use it as a moment to take a short break or work in another way – such as making an important phone call if you're unable to be on your computer.

10. Be Self-Aware

Reviewing your Interrupters Log is a great way to reflect on your day. If you're a manager, an important part of your job is to be available to people, to handle urgent issues, and to coach your team members.

So, if you're perceiving these tasks as interruptions, you may have to rethink your priorities. That could involve delegating tasks, so that you can spend more time catching up with your team. Read our article Fostering Initiative in Your Team for more tips to empower your team to step up, take on new tasks, and answer questions for themselves before they come to you.

Finally, think back to your Interrupters Log and put yourself in others' shoes. Are you an interrupter? Are you intruding on your people's concentration? By reflecting on your own behavior and the ways of working in your team, you can minimize interruptions without leaving anything – or anyone – behind.

Download Your Interrupters Log

Key Points

If interruptions keep robbing you of time and energy, or pushing you off schedule, you need to identify what your interrupters are, and tackle them in your daily schedule. To do this:

  1. Keep an Interrupters Log.
  2. Hold routine meetings.
  3. Book "contingency time."
  4. Set "available" and "unavailable" times.
  5. Learn to say "no."
  6. Communicate with your team.
  7. Set your tech to work for you (not against you).
  8. Catch your breath.
  9. Tackle unavoidable interruptions.
  10. Be self-aware.

This site teaches you the skills you need for a happy and successful career; and this is just one of many tools and resources that you'll find here at Mind Tools. Subscribe to our free newsletter, or join the Mind Tools Club and really supercharge your career!

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Comments (40)
  • Over a month ago alice.gledhill wrote
    We've updated this article and worksheet so you can manage interruptions whether working from home or in the office, without feeling guilty. As ever, we are always keen to hear your feedback so do let us know what you think!

    -Alice and the MT Content team
  • Over a month ago Yolande wrote
    Hi sjones4720,

    Yes, this article was definitely written pre-pandemic and the landscape of work has changed.
    In the article we say this: "However, some interruptions are both urgent and valid. You need to be interrupted, and you need to deal with the situation." I think, helping customers always fall into this category - it has to be done and it has to be done sooner rather than later. However, I think we could have been clearer about that in the article.
    Also, what we describe as "valid" and "invalid" interruptions - that's how we distinguish between "good" and "bad" interruptions. We don't see all of them as bad, but we also recognise that some of them are not valid.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts - we love hearing from our members.

    Yolande,
    Mind Tools Team
  • Over a month ago sjones4720 wrote
    These are great ideas, but the inside sales team I work with handles calls from customers who may interrupt their focus. You can't tell a customer that I have "unavailable" hours or block your phone. Those interruptions are why we have a job. It's a fundamental issue with renewable sales; customers call, you answer, then try to refocus on your work. This article assumes interruptions are bad, but not if it's a customer and you can make a sale. These are overall good ideas (a little stale) if you work in an office, which fewer are today.
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