I’m sure you’ve all seen the 2012 DirecTV commercials – they result in awesome lines like, “Don’t end up in a roadside ditch”, “Don’t have a grandson with a dog collar” or “Don’t re-enact scenes from Platoon with Charlie Sheen.” I love these commercials because they are about how a little thing (like arguing with your cable company) can result in these hugely ridiculous life-changing events. Not managing interruptions can have the same effect, so forgive my blatant plagiarism, but:
- when you get interrupted, you yell at coworkers
- when you yell at coworkers, you get fired for anger issues
- when you get fired for anger issues, you watch soap operas all day
- when you watch soap operas all day, you eat bon bons and get fat
- don’t eat bon bons and get fat – learn to manage your interruptions!
In my last post, I wrote about taming your phone. Of course, the phone isn’t the only problem in this world of interruptions. Since my job as a project manager consists of a constant flow of interruptions, I forget that the rest of the world needs time to think through things and focus on either a series of little details or tackling a huge project. Interruptions during those types of tasks can greatly reduce productivity. So, besides the phone problem, we are all getting texts, instant messages, emails, following twitter and Facebook feeds, and for those of you in the same building with your coworkers – physical interruptions by people intruding into your cubicle or office space – or offering you cake in the lunchroom for someone’s birthday. (Yum… cake!)
So, how do you actually have time to do your work? To be able to accomplish anything, YOU must control how and when you are interrupted – or at least minimize the interruption’s effect on you. Here are my top 7 ways to continue working on the important tasks and not to end up eating bon bons and getting fat:
- Be consistent by following communication etiquette. Physical interruptions (going into someone’s office) requires an immediate interaction. Text messages and chats are expected to be answered within minutes. Emails are generally expected to be returned within 2-4 hours. Phone calls, these days, are expected to go to voice mail and be responded to “as soon as you get the message” – let’s go with 4-6 hours. Twitter & Facebook comments can be ignored for days – or even forever. If you respect the expectation, you can prevent someone from hunting you down multiple ways. For example, if you leave a voicemail and don’t get a response, you’re likely to send an email. If there is not a response in a reasonable time, you are likely to try to IM or text the person. Last resort is usually showing up in a person’s office. So, respect the communication both ways – follow the “do unto others” Golden Rule and also make sure you are allowing yourself windows to respond within a reasonable time frame. You don’t want a line of people outside your door!
- Turn it off! Turn off the phone, your cell phone, chat, email, the intertubes – turn all of it off! You can turn it on when you’re ready to take a break and address those items. You won’t miss anything. I promise. Emergencies are the only concern with this method. So, provide a way for someone you trust to interrupt you only if absolutely necessary. Perhaps set a ring tone on your cell or office phone to alert you that you need to only answer that call and ignore the others. Provide a separate number for your family in case of a personal emergency. You get the idea.
- If you can’t turn chat off, change your status. If you work where it is required to be available via chat all day, set your status to “busy.” You can even make a creative personalized message or auto response like, “I’m focused on solving a problem right now. If this is an emergency, ping me again and I’ll respond.” People are less likely to interrupt you if they think you are focused.
- Close the door. If your focus is required, close your office door. If you don’t even want people knocking, put a “do not disturb” sticky note on it that tells them when you’ll be available. This works for cubicle “doors” too – just put the sticky note underneath your name tag.
- Automatic email responses. Use the vacation or “out of office” message on your email to let people know when they can expect to hear back from you. You can usually set these to automatically respond during certain hours. Letting people know that you will respond to them between noon and 1pm can avoid future interruptions from the same person showing up in your office. Setting expectations – and then meeting them consistently – will train those who communicate with you to do it as you’d like.
- Work from home. It is proven in countless studies that if you are allowed to work from home, you can accomplish more in a short period of focused time. See if your company will allow you to leave early or come in late to focus uninterrupted on a task. If not, changing venues can sometimes help – see if you can reserve a conference room and close the door, or go to the Starbucks around the corner. Anywhere people don’t know how to interrupt you will help. (BTW, MightyData is virtual company so if working from home appeals to you, take a look at our job application.)
- If you are interrupted, handle it right. Some interruptions can’t be helped and will happen. But, make sure you determine the level of urgency before you start addressing the issue. Make sure the person interrupting understands that you are in the middle of something. “Can this wait?” is always a fair question. Be polite, but be firm.
In the end, these tactics will work, but not if you use them all the time. Remember to put these tips to good use, but only when you truly need to focus. You don’t want to cry wolf and end up eating bon bons and getting fat for a completely different reason!
If you have any tips to avoid interruptions, I welcome your comments and suggestions. Bring ‘em!