Tips for managing interruptions

Ask the right questions

Are you asking enough questions? You will need to ask questions to validate whether the request is a genuine priority, and whether it fits with YOUR priorities, otherwise you will get dragged into other people’s priorities. People often say things like ‘it’s urgent’ or ‘I need this by close of play’, etc. Questions like ‘Could we revisit this tomorrow?’ ‘What would happen if we did it next week instead?’ are usually sufficient.

Be assertive!

This is about being firm but respectful. Learn to say ‘No’, politely, and constructively. Re-affirm your own priorities. Don’t make a rod for your own back. Be careful about accepting sideways delegation by your peers to you. If you find it difficult to say ‘No’ you’ll find it easier by using business reasons to justify your position, e.g., “I understand this is urgent for you, but I have other priorities which I must deal with first – I’d rather agree a realistic deadline with you than one which I can’t meet.” Show people your schedule, which proves how you prioritise and manage your time.

Reject other people’s problems

Some people have the irritating habit of handing their problems to you so that they become your problems. This is the ‘monkey’ on their back that they want you to carry around for them. If you react without giving yourself time to think, the monkey jumps onto your back and becomes your issue/burden. Beware if you feel someone is trying to pass the Monkey – ask yourself is this important to you or them.

Alter your environment

Work in someone else’s office or in an environment where you are less likely to get disturbed if you are working on a priority. If this isn’t possible, close the door or sit at a desk where you are facing away from others or are less visible. Create ‘visual’ barriers to discourage ‘drop-ins’. Eliminate “drop-in” visits by using a visual barrier at your work space. For example, putting tall plants in direct line of vision of a door or window, keeping a minimal number of seats in your office, placing your briefcase or some files on those that remain, etc. People are less likely to hang around if they are standing.

Stand for unannounced Visitors

Standing up for unannounced visitors gives a signal that you are busy and have limited time. While it might feel slightly uncomfortable to start with, it will give the other person a very clear signal that time is tight for you. When dealing with interruptions as you are sat down gives the signal that you have more time.

Limit your time – and stick to it

If you really do have to deal with this interruption, set out your stall before entering into discussion. For example, if someone asks ‘Have you got a minute’ – then that is what you give. If you say ‘I can’t spend more than 5 minutes on that’ then make sure 5 minutes is all you give. Tell the other person up front how much time you will spend.

Plan for priorities

Estimate the time for a task and double it to accommodate interruptions. If you finish earlier than you estimated, it will feel like a bonus and a breather. Also try to plan time for priorities when you are less likely to get interrupted. Remember that as interruptions and other unexpected events occur throughout the day you may need to re-plan accordingly.

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