How Do You Handle Interruptions?

In my consulting role, I’m often asked how to handle interruptions.  I watch.  It’s amazing what I find.

Interruptions are what you set up.  If you set it up that you are open to interruptions any time, anywhere, that’s what you’ll get.  If you set it up that people need to respect your time, then that’s what the result will be. 

I can hear you now – I’ve heard it so many times before – the big BUT – I know – I don’t understand!  I do – only too well.  I promise you that, if I watched you operate, I could find many ways to stop the interruptions.  Mainly, it’s about one thing.

It’s called boundaries.  It’s not something I understood very well either at one point in my career.  As a manager, I thought I had to have my door open all the time and accept interruptions from anyone and everyone – after all, my boss was important, my clients were important, my staff was important, my personal connections were important – everyone was important!  The one I forgot about was me – I was important too and so was my work.

Who taught me that lesson?  A boss I had once.  Couldn’t stand him and I was glad it was a short contract.  The worst boss I ever had and yet I learned this important rule from him – me first and then everyone else.

Sounds quite egotistical, doesn’t it?  It isn’t.  It’s sound time management practice! 

Who is the most important person in your life?  YOU.  If it isn’t, then I urge you to reconsider.

It’s critical to your mental health, physical health, career health, personal and business relationship health and your stress levels that you begin to embrace this idea.  You first and everyone and everything else a far second! 

Hard to do?  You bet.  For most people, this is especially difficult to do especially women.  Women have been trained to subjugate themselves to everyone else’s needs – husband, children, parents, bosses, colleagues, etc.   It’s time to stop!  Now!

When you think of time, think with you first – your sanity.  Many people think they have a lot of time – they don’t!  No one has. 

Think about it – 24 hours in a day – out of those 24 hours, we spend 8 hours sleeping or getting ready for bed and sleeping.  That leaves 16 hours in a day.  Our preparing food and  eating takes at least 2 hours. That leaves 14 hours.  Out of 14 hours, most people spend 10 hours commuting to work, working and community back from work.  That leaves 4 hours.  Where will you put “Me” in that 4 hours?

At work, let’s say you work 8 hours.  Out of the 8 hours. there is an hour spend on lunch, two 15-minute breaks, leaving 6.5 hours to get work done.  That’s a lot of hours you say.   Really? 

Let’s say you go to the bathroom or get a glass of water or tea 5 times for 4 minutes each – 20 minutes gone – so now we have 6 hours and 10 minutes.  

Now, let’s say you want to get a report done but . . . .

  • someone has just had a tragedy occur and they need to leave early – they’re crying in your office and you know you have to calm them down before they leave – that’s an hour gone.  5 hours 10 minutes left
  • then, your boss wants to talk to you and so does your colleague about a project you’re doing together – that’s another hour gone.  4 hours 10 minutes left

 Good chunk right? 

  • well, you discover that you are missing some information you thought you had.  It takes you a half hour to track it down.  3 hours 40 minutes left

Ready?  Write. 

  • But the phone rings and you answer it. 
  • An email comes in from your spouse, you answer that. 
  • Three people come in to ask a question. 
  • You search for something on the internet and find that you’ve forgotten some data you should really put into your report – it’s important. 
  • A colleague comes in to talk about something personal  POOF!  3 hours gone! 

Now you have 40 minutes – you barely get through the introduction. 

You either stay late or take it home (remember, you only have 4 hours left in your day) or hope that tomorrow it’ll get done in-between everything else you have scheduled.

It happens all the time – how do you deal with it?

1.  Close the door.  If you don’t have a door, create a makeshift one – a ribbon across your cubicle entrance – “I can’t right now” or “Busy” or “Can we talk later”.  If you don’t have a door and someone knocks, don’t answer!  That’s right – don’t answer.  If someone unsticks your ribbon, just say, “Hey.  I just can’t talk right now.  Do you want to make an appointment with me?  Would you email me?”  (yes, I know, it’s tough when they’ve “invaded” your territory and insist on disrespecting your space and time)

2.  Teach people to respect your boundaries – train them to set appointments with you.  Block off time when you’ll accept appointments and set appointments with people during that time – yes, even your boss!  The rest of the time, you schedule the work that needs to get done.

3.  As a manager, you must connect with each team member.  Set appointments throughout the week to meet with each of them for updates and discussions.  I like the idea of having a staff meeting every single Friday morning too with an agenda, time allocation for each agenda item and sticking with the time allocated.

4.  Don’t answer emails, phone calls, etc. while you are working on something such as a report.  Focus.  Set particular times to answer emails, phone calls, etc.

5.  Respect yourself and your time.  If you do, others will too.  Why?  Because if you respect yourself and your time, you’ll have the fortitude to “train” people to respect your time by making appointments, not interrupting you and not expecting them to be at their disposal whenever they wish.  Set the boundaries.  The first one is always the hardest.  Start by getting people to set appointments with you, letting everyone know you’ll be answering emails 3 times per day, you’ll be taking calls between such and such hours, and your working hours are between such and such.  Will they think you’ve gone goofy?  Yes.  So what.  In the end, you’ll have their respect and you’ll have time to get your work done!  What a novel idea!  Less stress – more peace – wouldn’t that be nice!  It can be.


Lorraine Arams

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