To to handle interruptions at work

With the economic realities we have been living with since 2008, companies are forcing employees to do more with less. Not only are companies asking employees to be more creative and use less resources, they are also asking less employees to do more work.

An interruption is anything that distracts you from the primary task at hand. Common workplace distractions are emails, phone calls, drop-in meetings, etc

This means that most people you talk to, working in a corporate environment, have too much to do and not enough time. This means a small number of daily interruptions can have a huge impact on your productivity.

I wrote an article about MAC OS Lion January 2011 and one of the note in it said :

The Research The truth is that when we attempt to multi-task, we become much less effective. Modern cognitive research clearly demonstrates that when people multi-task, they perform less work and miss information. Researchers discovered that re-orienting yourself to the task at hand, after a distraction, takes 10-15 minutes. Quantifiably, performance for multi-taskers can drop as much as 40% along with a marked degradation of memory and creativity.

The reality is that you cannot completely get rid of distractions. They are a natural part of your work life, the key is to managing them efficiently.

You cannot improve that which you cannot measure

Having managed large operational groups for some multinationals, there is a mantra I repeat to most of my managers. You cannot improve that which you cannot measure. Before you start panicking about how many interruptions you have to deal with on a daily basis, make an objective inventory. Using a simple sheet of paper and a pencil, write down at least the following information (each time you are interrupted):

  • Date / Time
  • Duration of interruption
  • Who interrupted you
  • Why they interrupted you (the subject)
  • Was the interruption worthwhile?

I recommend you log interruptions for at least 2-3 weeks before you conduct your first review. At the end of your first logging period, it's time to make the data sing. First determine which interruptions were worthwhile and valid. Are they coming from a particular person or group? Do they concern a particular topic? Determine if you can stop these interruptions by making time for these topics or people as planned events in your calendar. You can then inform people to keep these issues until the planned meetings.

You will most likely have interruptions that were not worthwhile and you have to address these. Talk to the people in question and explain why you believe they were not valid and how they should address these in the future. Coaching is the key here. It is useful to explain how these interruptions impact your productivity.

Voicemail is your friend

Most people I talk to at work don’t know how to configure their phone to send calls straight to voicemail. Now is a great time to find out. I’ll wait here while you go and ask the question to a colleague or support person.

If you are working on a tight deadline or simply need some uninterrupted time, send calls straight to voicemail. I recommend you change your voicemail greeting every morning so callers know you are in. Your voicemail message should mention that you are busy and will be checking your messages sporadically during the day.

Do not disturb sign

 Whether you work in an office or cubicle, people may drop by unexpectedly and demand an audience. Most of the time, you should you the log method but there may be times when your work is too important and you just can’t afford the interruption. For these times, I recommend you create a notice printed sign that says you are working on something important and would appreciate not being disturbed.

Hand this sign just before people come into view so they do not break your concentration. Explain to your team that you expect them to comply with the sign when they see it because it is only up when absolutely necessary. People generally understand and will comply.

Reserve some available time

  1. If you are a manager or team lead then a good habit is to reserve some “general availability time” in your calendar. There is no magic rule of how much time or how often. You should reserve as much time as needed but no more. Share these windows of opportunity with your various stakeholders and ask them to leverage these when they need your attention.
  2. There are people that you interact with on a regular basis. These are people for whom you should have dedicated reserved time in your calendar.

Conclusions

Hopefully you found some good ideas to help you be productive. Feel free to send me comments, questions or ideas.