ARTICLE: “How Can I Get Any Work Done If You’re Always Bothering Me?” (Part I)

“It’s not me! I know it!” You’re the type of person who is good at planning and prioritizing your day. You’re efficient, work hard, plan realistically, and don’t procrastinate. But you still have things on your to-do list at the end of the day. Maybe, just maybe, your plans are being thrown off by external challenges that you can’t control. Visitors, meetings, phone calls, mail, and crises can all waste your time. So I’d like to devote my next few columns to a series on dealing with common external timewasters.

First of all, can you prevent interruptions from occurring? Can you stop the phone from ringing, avoid the crisis, or keep that co-worker from walking into your office? Not always. Short from barring the door or turning on your voice mail, interruptions are inevitable. However, you can manage them once they do occur. Does an interruption that should have taken 10 minutes ever turn into 50? Do you ever say, “Well, I’ve lost my focus now, so I may as well take a break.” So you get a cup of coffee, go to the restroom, or visit a friend. I’ve found that what you do before, during, and after an interruption is more important than attempting to eliminate them. Visitors are part of your job.

Some of these tips may work for you and others won’t. Take the ones that sound good and leave the rest. Let’s start with controlling the amount of time wasted by drop-in visitors. Controlling time taken up by visitors requires both courtesy and good judgment. Here are some suggestions:

1. Consider the physical layout of your office. Does your desk face a door or a hallway? Humans are curious beings. When someone walks by, it is our nature to look up to see who just passed. If that person is wandering around looking for someone to bother, they will catch your eye and smile. Not wanting to be rude, you smile back. They enter your office and ask the death question, “So, how’s it going?” Congratulations, you just bought yourself an easy ten-minute interruption. One solution is to rotate your desk or change the layout of your cubicle so that your back is facing the door. If someone walks by and sees that you are busy, they are less likely to interrupt you (but not always). As an added benefit, you focus longer on the work in front of you. If you can’t rotate your desk completely around, try at least to work sideways and use a computer screen or cabinet to block your view to the corridor.

2. Remove all chairs from your office. A chair is an invitation to sit down (especially the comfortable padded ones). If there are no chairs, a visitor cannot park in your work area. If there is nowhere for visitors to sit, you must stand to greet people who unexpectedly drop in. Extend your hand, smile, and ask, “What can I do for you?” The person will notice this business-like atmosphere and may cut their visit shorter than if they could lounge and put their feet up on your desk. Keep a nice padded folding chair tucked out of sight. If the issue is important enough, you can pull out the chair and invite them to sit. Don’t ask your visitor to sit unless you have the time. On seminar participant once told me he bought a plain high-back wooden chair and cut a half-inch off the front of each leg. When a colleague sat in it, they couldn’t quite tell what was wrong, but soon became uncomfortable and left!

3. Place a clock strategically. If you do have to have a chair in your office, place a clock behind you in view of visitors. Every once in a while, turn around and glance at the clock. When you glance at the clock is very important. You should never check the time when the other person is talking, because it’s rude. However, when you begin speaking, you can casually turn around while talking, check the clock, and continue speaking without missing a beat. This is very subtle and sends a message to the person that you are on a schedule and watching the clock.

4. Be honest and assertive. When someone says, “Gotta minute?” do they really mean one minute? Never! So respond, “Actually, I have just one. Will that be enough or can I call you back at 3:00?” Or when someone enters your office and begins talking, wait until they take a breath. Then say, “Joan, I want to talk to you about this, but I’ve got my back up against a deadline right now. Would it be okay if I called you in an hour?” Let the person see you write the appointment in your calendar so they feel you heard them. When you don’t have time for an interruption and allow it to occur anyway, you’re not doing either one of you a favor. First, because your mind is elsewhere, you’re not really listening to the person. Can’t you tell when someone isn’t present? Their eyes look strangely glassy. Second, you’re not doing yourself any favors because you’re going to miss a deadline. So do both of you a favor and be assertive. Honest, from the heart. Don’t be too aggressive and violate their rights, but don’t be too passive either and let someone violate yours. Find the middle ground. I honestly believe that most people are not trying to be rude by interrupting you. They simply want to tell you something and would be happy to tell you another time if it’s truly inconvenient. 

© 1999 Laura Stack. Laura Stack is a personal productivity expert, author, and professional speaker who helps busy workers Leave the Office Earlier® with Maximum Results in Minimum Time®. She is the president of The Productivity Pro®, Inc., a time management training firm specializing in productivity improvement in high-stress organizations. Since 1992, Laura has presented keynotes and seminars on improving output, lowering stress, and saving time in today’s workplaces. She is the bestselling author of three works published by Broadway Books: The Exhaustion Cure (2008), Find More Time (2006) and Leave the Office Earlier (2004). Laura is a spokesperson for Microsoft, 3M, and Day-Timers®, Inc and has been featured on the CBS Early Show, CNN, and the New York Times. Her clients include Cisco Systems, Sunoco, KPMG, Nationwide, and 3M. To have Laura speak at your next event, call 303-471-7401. Visit to sign up for her free monthly productivity newsletter.