Ban Interruptions! Six Ways to Limit Drop-Ins







Many of the most creative, productive conversations I’ve ever had started as spontaneous, unplanned interruptions. Sometimes we need to interrupt others if we have a customer on the line and need a fast response. If there’s an emergency, your team members must interrupt you; in fact, there are many instances that you want to be interrupted. If you’re a manager, you want your team members to feel welcome to talk with you about anything, and so you unwittingly institute an “open door” policy.

Unfortunately, interruptions usually aren’t any of these forms—they are unimportant, extraneous, or simply a way for people not to forget something they are thinking about. If you say to yourself, “I can’t remember the name of that restaurant Shelly was telling me about,” you might get right up and “pop your head” into her office and say, “Hi Shelly, got a minute? What was the name of that restaurant…?” Poor Shelly might have been deep in thought or working on an important project, and now she’s derailed. She may not be able to achieve the same level of concentration when she turns back to her work.

Unplanned interruptions are a sticky wicket, because they can be both good and bad in this way. Perhaps you’ve never thought about how inefficient it is to just drop in on people while they’re working (click to tweet). If you’re a social butterfly, you may not know others consider you a distraction. But your team members aren’t always prepared to talk with you about a particular issue, or they may not have time to chat if they’re trying to finish up some last-minute details before a meeting in 10 minutes. We should take personal responsibility to think twice before we “Got a minute?” someone.

On the flip side, how do I communicate to my team members that I would prefer not to be interrupted at this moment, but if you have an emergency that requires my attention, please come in? Not all of us can just close our doors or put up a Do Not Disturb sign (as if that would stop some people). Team members may not notice the emergency cone you put outside your door because you’re up against a deadline. They may actually brush aside that chain of paper clips you’ve strung suggestively across your cubicle door. In fact, if you didn’t specifically tell them about these signals, they may interrupt just to tell you they are there!

So what can you do to reduce your Interruption Inefficiency Coefficient?

First, consider how you can politely handle it when you do get interrupted:

1. Combine the interruption with something else, like a bio-break or a beverage run. You may as well, so you won’t have to interrupt yourself again later. Get up from your desk, ask the drop-in to go with you, walk out the door together, and discuss the issue as you go. Walking out of your own office really does work! Combining the discussion with something you were going to do anyway is a good efficiency strategy.

2. Make a little time…but just a little. Help your team member be realistic when asked, “Got a minute?” If you do only have a few minutes, tell the person, “I can chat for ten minutes right now, but if we need longer, I can call you at 2:00.” Be honest about your availability and deflect the interruption if necessary by giving an alternate time. I call this “saying yes to the person and no to the interruption.” If your team member takes you up on it, give them your undivided attention for the length of time you promised. “Half working” on email or shuffling paper lengthens the interruption, because it doesn’t appear that you’re listening. When the allotted time is over, close the conversation. Sticking to the timeline will force team members to be realistic about “the minute” they requested. Next, consider how to prevent drop-ins from happening in the first place:

3. Check to see if anyone needs something from you first. One way to discourage people from interrupting you is to head it off at the pass by asking if they have anything they need to discuss with you before you start working. Let people know, “I’m going to be head down in my office for the next 90 minutes working on this project. Do you need anything from me before then?” Your team members can’t read your mind. By making a preventive assertion in this way, you’re letting them know you’re available now but not later.

4. Cut yourself off from the office. One of my clients has “cafeteria time.” When she has an important deadline, she literally leaves her office and works in the cafeteria so that people can’t find her. Close your email, turn off your phone, and get to work. I’ve heard of some people even shutting and locking the door and turning off the lights! You can try donning noise-reducing earphones and using a timer to remind yourself to stay focused on your task.

Then consider how to avoid breaking other people’s focus. What could you do instead?

5. Schedule an appointment. Rather than break in on people who look totally focused on their work, get on their calendars—even if just for 15 minutes. Keep track of the items you want to talk about about in a note so you don’t forget them. Copy that note into the meeting invitation, so the person will be prepared to discuss them with you. Often people have to read emails to refresh their memories or full files, so the advance notice makes the meeting more efficient, in that they’re prepared to have the conversation.

6. Leave a brief note on the door. A seminar attendee told me she instituted “clipboard” time. When she really needed to focus and would prefer not to be interrupted, she hung a clipboard outside her door. People wrote their name, issue, and time of interruption without talking to her, and she got back to them when she was done with her project. Desperate times call for desperate measures! Be creative about how you can signal to your team members that you’re head down. But you can’t keep the clipboard up all day! There is a spirit in the signal. Determine how long is too long to be unavailable.

Tune in, Drop Out Unplanned interruptions can become ridiculously intrusive if you let them. Eight hours of work at home can be the same as two hours of work in the office due to these constant distractions. Sometimes just talking about the effect of interruptions can help. As a team, take steps to help each other. Be considerate of your colleagues’ efforts to get their work done. It’s a small change, but it can pay substantial dividends for everyone.

About Laura Stack, your next keynote speaker:

Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, CPAE is an award-winning keynote speaker, bestselling author, and noted authority on productivity and performance. Funny, engaging, and full of real life strategies that work, Laura will change mindsets and attitudes so your people can maximize productivity, strengthen performance, and get the job done right. Her presentations at corporate events, sales kick-off meetings, and association conferences help audiences improve output, increase speed in execution, and save time in the office. Stack has authored seven books, including her newest work, Doing the Right Things Right: How the Effective Executive Spends Time (Jan. 2016). To have Laura Stack speak at your next event, call 303-471-7401, email, or CONTACT US.

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