Managing People Interruptions

managing people interruptions

Managing People Interruptions


“Excuse me …” << SIGH >> Even a polite interruption is still an interruption, and all interruptions threaten to hijack our productivity. But the people variety can be especially tricky to navigate. Whereas, for example, we can turn off email notifications to stop email distractions and we can silence our phones to keep a call from pulling us off task, we don’t have similar technology to address the complicated human being interruptor. There are, however, proactive ways to lessen the likelihood of being interrupted by someone. And, yes, there are tactful ways to head-off an interrupter that threatens our productivity. So let’s talk about the ways we can construct a functional cone of silence to foster productive output.

Set the Right Expectations

If you’ve spent any time around a toddler just beginning to speak, you’ve likely heard its parent or guardian say, “Use your words.” This gentle guidance is often required when the emerging talker is falling back on pointing, grunting, and other rudimentary gestures to communicate his or her desires. Well, I’m offering up the same gentle guidance to you here. Ask for uninterrupted time. Basic, yes, but this rudimentary advice is wildly effective and greatly underutilized.

“But Sara,” you say, “I’m always busy when I’m at my desk. I’d have to be constantly telling people to leave me alone.” Indeed, that wouldn’t earn you coworker of the year status. And, it would likely dampen your collective group productivity as you’d be discouraging peer interaction. As with so much in life, the key here is balance. You can honor an open door policy and still cordon off specific times for uninterrupted focus. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. It works with clear communication.

Let’s say you come into the office and you have a looming deadline. In some collective workspace situations, closing your door can signify your desire for no interruptions, but I’m a fan of direct communication in the workplace. Why not share your pending task load with those in your orbit and request uninterrupted time? Setting the right expectations is key to managing people’s interruptions. Use your words. Ask for what you need. Make your desire for privacy public.

Don’t rely on assumptions. You may see white space on your calendar and know that’s when you’ll tack project X. But your coworkers may see the unscheduled time on your calendar as open availability that is free for their taking. If your work team relies on calendars, denote your uninterrupted time accordingly for everyone to see.

Some organizations or teams find it helpful to establish set hours for independent contribution. This could be scheduled daily or weekly. In these situations, the team agrees and understands that no meetings will be scheduled during these times. Everyone is committed to addressing their individual tasks during this time. They can count on the time and can plan accordingly. Because mornings are often some of our most focused hours, many choose the early hours of the day to restrict interruptions.

Provide Avenues for Addressing Pending Needs

Depending on the work you do and the people in your orbit, it may make sense to have a system in place for addressing pressing needs during the time you’ve established for no interruption. These systems become your safeguard against people interruption. Though the avenues for addressing pending needs are situationally dependent, these examples might inform your specific circumstances or common challenges:

  • You have a client meeting and you provide your team with a designated decision maker for the duration of your client interaction. The decision maker has the authority and resources needed to make decisions during this time.
  • Many collaboration apps, like Microsoft Teams, support the option of alerting the relevant parties when a “stop work issue” needs immediate attention. Investigate how to customize notifications so only you will be alerted when someone encounters a “stop work issue”.
  • Sometimes inadequate delegation causes people interruptions. Have you given clear and complete instructions to your team members? Are you holding back on granting a level of decision-making authority for an unproven or invalid reason? Could better training reduce the likelihood of interruption?
  • Avoiding people interruptions could be as simple as:
    • Asking your workgroup to email you any questions/concerns, with the assurance you’ll be processing email later in the day.
    • Asking your children to list out the things they want to discuss, with a promise you’ll visit the list together when you finish your work.
    • Requesting your people text you if something urgent arises, with instruction to be judicious with the urgent designation. Oftentimes a text is a less impactful people interruption than a face-to-face intrusion.

Maintain Your Boundaries to Manage the People Interruptions

Sometimes, despite our best efforts, we get interrupted. This isn’t the time to snap in frustration, sternly admonish or otherwise burn a bridge. Yes, I said I’m a fan of direct communication, but there are qualifiers there.

If the interruption entails an urgent need, your best course of action is to address it and then regroup with your calendar, updating your time blocking as needed. But sometimes the interruption is simply unnecessary. These situations warrant a tactful response that honors your original boundary. “Tactful” protects your productivity and your relationship. It might look like:

  • “I’ve got 30 minutes left here on my project. Let me wrap up and then I’ll come over to your office/call you back.”
  • “I’d love to catch up, but I’ve got this deadline. Let’s schedule lunch/coffee/catch-up-time for xxxxx.”
  • “I want to give this the attention it deserves. Let’s find some open space to discuss tomorrow/this afternoon, etc.”
  • “I appreciate your desire to collaborate. Let’s start a shared Evernote folder to log topics, then set up a weekly meeting to run through it.”

Managing People Interruptions Actually Protects People Interactions

Communication. Collaboration. Working through things together. Interactions aren’t interruptions. I’m the first to agree that two heads are generally better than one, just not when the task at hand is designed for one. Be proactive in protecting your productivity by giving yourself the focused time you need to do your best work. To effectively manage people interruptions, establish, communicate and honor your boundaries. And remember, distraction-free independent working time frees up time for quality people interaction time.


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