Productivity: How to Handle Interruptions Effectively

You lose precious time because of interruptions.

You start working on an important task, and as you start finding your “groove”, you get interrupted. When you go back to your task, it takes you a little bit of time to find you groove back, only to get interrupted again. The constant interruptions prevent you from completing your task.

Interruptions can be damaging to your productivity. They break your “flow” and make you lose your momentum. They distract and sidetrack you.

The Main Source of Interruptions

In the context of work (and perhaps in life in general), people are the main source of interruptions. Rarely will you be interrupted by, say, a fire alarm or by a tile falling from the ceiling or even by a fly buzzing in your ear.

Most interruptions come from someone else wanting something from you: they need a piece of information; they ask you to do something for them; they’re seeking for an answer you may have; they feel like chit chatting; they’d like you to join them for lunch; they need emotional support; etc.

There are many ways people interrupt you. Sometimes, they come in person. Sometimes, they call you on your phone. Sometimes, they send you an email. Sometimes, they send you a push notification on your mobile device asking you to buy something. No matter the method, there’s someone behind the interruption.

Your First Line of Defense

Your first line of defense against interruptions is to put barriers between yourself and the sources of interruption. By that, I mean turning off your smartphone, your computer notifications, and anything else that may divert your attention from the task at end.

This also means that you inform the people who are susceptible to interrupt you that you’re not to be interrupted during your work time. In other words, inform people of the times you’re unavailable.

I worked with someone who had a sign at his desk that indicated when he was too busy to answer any question. Everyone knew that when the sign was up, they had to come back at a later time (unless it was an emergency).

Your Attitude: Welcome People

As much as you can, seek to limit the sources of interruptions.

However, even with your best efforts, you’ll nonetheless have to deal with interruptions from time to time. And your effectiveness in dealing with them has a great impact on your productivity.

You can’t stop all interruptions, but you can control how you manage them.

Before talking about what to do with the interruptions, let me tell you this: Always receive people with respect. Welcome them.

Realize that, unless you specifically told them not to interrupt you, it’s not their fault if they’re interrupting you.

However, from my experience, most interruptions come from well-intentioned people. They have needs and think you might be able to help them. Thus, don’t make them suffer wrath for coming to see you with their need.

Always make people feel welcomed. That doesn’t mean you give them a license to interrupt you. However, if you want no interruptions, the onus is on you to advise people accordingly.

Your Strategy: Make a Decision

Now, to our main topic: how to handle interruptions effectively — assuming that the interruption is valid (i.e. the Interrupter genuinely needs something from you).

Saying to the Interrupter, “Go away!” or “Leave me alone!” won’t do; it’s not very amicable nor professional.

To handle interruptions effectively, you must determine a few key elements quickly.

First, you must determine what the Interrupter needs. Usually, the Interrupter will tell you on the onset what they need. But if they don’t volunteer the information, you can simply ask, “How can I help you today?”

Once you know what they need, you must answer two questions:

  1. “Am I the best person to meet their need?” If you’re not the right person meet their need, refer them to the right person. If you don’t know who the right person is, tell them you don’t know and the discussion is over. If you’re the right person to meet their need, you must answer the second question.
  2. “Can I afford to meet their need right now?” In other words, can you take the few minutes and resolve their issue here and then? If you can’t, don’t simply tell them, “I can’t” and send them back empty handed. Instead, tell them when you’ll help them. For example, to give you time to finish your task, you might ask them to come back in 30 minutes or tell them you’ll be in touch with them when you’re ready to meet their need, or request that they invite you to a meeting, etc. Sometimes, it’s preferable to take a few minutes to give the Interrupter what they need right away.

Once you have dealt with the interruption, go right back to your task.

The faster you go through this process, the better it is for your productivity.

Example 1

The Interrupter comes at your desk while you’re working on an important task and ask you to provide them with a copy of the 30-page report you wrote the week before. What do you do?

You know what the need.

Are you the best person to meet their need? Yes.

Can you afford to meet their need right now? Most likely. It’s going to take you all of 60 seconds to email them a copy of the report.

Example 2

The Interrupter comes back at your desk and this time, they ask you to go through the 30-page report with them so they can understand your thought process as detailed in the report.

Again, you know what they need.

Are you the best person to meet their need? Yes.

Can you afford to meet their need right now? Probably not. Reviewing the entire report is quite extensive. Thus, you tell them to find a free spot in your Outlook calendar and to invite you to a one-hour meeting so that you can go through the report with them.

I could continue to multiply the examples, but you get the point.

When not dealt with effectively, interruptions can cripple you to the point that you get nothing done. However, interruptions should not be feared, neither should they be a source of irritation.

As you learn to deal with them effectively, your productivity will soar and you’ll make many people happy because they’ll know they can count on you to lend them a helping hand.

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