I remember quite clearly the exact moment I realized the point of my job was to respond to interruptions. I was sitting in my tiny office (with no door), trying to get through my 40 emails and 8 voicemails and for the 4th time that morning, a volunteer walked in to ask me a question. I was beyond frustrated to the point of exploding and was about to demand “WHAT DO YOU WANT?” when the thought came: “This is your job. It is your job to be available to people with questions. It is your job to be interrupted.”
As a lover of projects and someone who can concentrate to the point of tuning others out (even when having my name repeated 3 times in louder and louder tones), I realized soon after this that I was in the wrong job. But before taking the drastic step of quitting, I took steps to both minimize interruptions and to respond in positive ways to my coworkers. Here’s what I did:
Tell people not to interrupt you.Sounds obvious and harsh, but it’s necessary. As an office manager who largely oversaw volunteers, I would spend a few minutes chatting with each person at the start of their “shift,” outline their primary tasks for the day and ask them if they had any questions. “I’m going to be putting my head down to get through a project,” I’d say. “So I’d prefer not to be interrupted. Look this over in the next few minutes and let me know if you have any more questions before you get started.” This will work for your boss, too, though you might want to throw in some extra tact. This practice has the added advantage of showing your volunteers or coworkers that you value them beyond the tasks they perform. I would highly recommend this practice to any manger!
Set up indicators you should not be interrupted.The more proactive you can be in this, the better. If you have a door, close it. If you don’t, try using a sign. If your phone is the interruption, try putting it in “Do Not Disturb” mode, or change your voicemail saying when you’ll next be picking up messages. You can do the same with email.
When someone comes to your office, say “Give me a moment.”One of my big issues with being interrupted when I’m in the middle of something is that my brain is not ready to treat the person with a question as a person. Instead, I treat the person as THE problem. By training myself to use a short “stock phrase” I could take a moment to collect myself before biting their head off.
Finish your thought or type a few words that will allow you to find your way back into your work.This is key. Do you know how long it takes for you to get back into a groove with your work when you’re interrupted? 25 minutes.Ouch! No wonder we all hate disruptions so much! Finishing your thought will help you return to your work–and it is more efficient for your company! Unless the building is on fire, do this, even if you have an impatient coworker hovering over your shoulder.
Stretch and yawn or stand. One of the possible uses of yawning is social. Just like smiling, yawns are contagious. It is thought that we might use them them to “synchronize socially” with other people. In any event, stretching or standing can be your body’s signal to your brain that something different is about to happen. You’re prepping yourself to be interactive again rather than staying focused on your own thoughts.
Turn fully to the person, look them in the eyes, smile, and say, “As you can see, I’m really busy.What is it that you need?” All of these details are important. Looking them in the eye says to them “I see you. I have fully focused my attention on you.” Smiling is another social cue, it is encouraging and helps you to be ready to interact with them. Saying you’re really busy sets up the interaction to be brief, and asking what they need trains them to have a need when they interrupt you. (Most of these little nuggets are outlined in the book The Five Hour Workweek [affiliate link]).
Negotiate.Listen to their request and offer solutions. If they aren’t able to cut to the chase or come to a quick resolution, set up an appointment. If they are not able to continue what they are doing without your intervention, you’ll have to make the call as to whether you can give up what you’re doing now to help, or if they will have to wait. Offer to bring in your boss, if necessary.
Thank them.Say to them, “Thank you for bringing this to my attention. I’m glad we’ve gotten it resolved.” Turn back towards your work. If necessary, dismiss them. If you’ve got a hard core socializer on your hands, show them to the door, or walk with them to the water cooler, grab a drink and leave them there.
Back at your desk, yawn, stretch, return to your work.Again, you’re letting your brain know a change is coming–and your brain actually works more efficiently if both the right and left hemispheres (relational and processing) are working together.
When I realized that in order to stay sane as an office manager I needed to make peace with being interrupted, these steps helped me manage the disruptions and end the day feel satisfied rather than defeated.
Are you constantly interrupted at your job?
What do you do to value your coworkers but limit the negative impact of interruptions on your work?