— June 20, 2019
I used to work with a guy who would stick his head into my office and say, “Got a minute?” Of course, he always took a whole lot more. All kinds of interrupters can steal your focus and make a tossed salad of your thoughts, from people stopping by your desk, to your boss wanting “just one more thing,” to colleagues literally breaking into your speech and your train of thought during a meeting.
Unbelievably, most office workers are interrupted roughly every 11 minutes, according to a University of California at Irvine study, and it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to recover from an interruption. No wonder we all feel overstressed and underwater!
Disrupt the Interruptions
There are mindfulness techniques to help you regain focus and note-taking tips to help you find where you left off before the interruption occurred, so you can get back to your work quickly and accurately. But what if you could reduce the disruptions themselves?
Instead of feeling rattled and having to expend so much time and energy on recovery, you can work on reducing the frequency and repetitiveness of interruptions by practicing some kind and reasonable accommodations. Here are three ways to approach people who interrupt you while still taking care of yourself.
- Preserve your work time: In today’s open office environments, it’s easy for people to stop by to chat about a frustrating aspect of work or whatever they’ve been binge-watching on Netflix. Even if you’ve got a traditional door, some office butterflies always seem to alight there, to see what’s going on or because they need a break, even if it’s not convenient for you. To get them to move on, try a combination of time and priority management, with a smidgen of social warmth: “Oh, I’d love to hear about that. Can you tell me about it while we’re heading over to the ops meeting? I just have to knock out the end of this email.”
With my own intrusive colleague, after numerous encounters left me feeling disrupted and resentful, I finally learned to say, “Not right now, but I have a little time at 3:00.” I had to remind myself not to ask what his topic was, and to suggest, “We can go over it all later,” to stop him from “just” telling me what he wanted to discuss, because even that would take ten minutes. Sometimes I even walked him out of my office to demonstrate that I couldn’t chat right then. The combination of persistently giving him a specific meeting time and occasionally escorting him out made my point, and he got used to scheduling time to talk and also learned to announce his topic without discussing it until we actually met. I got back some control over my schedule and also reduced the negative feelings triggered by his hit-and-run approach.
- Manage your priorities: If your boss dumps projects on you at the 11th hour or comes up with new priorities even though your plate is already full, be conscious not just of your initial feelings of annoyance, but also of the real time and productivity your team may lose if you have to put active work and workgroups on pause while you dive into a new, unplanned area. Discussing with your boss how to get the most from existing staff, how to stay within your resource budget, and what you see as the most productive way to get the work done may give you the standing to rearrange your boss’s expectations for immediate response in ways that serve the work. I give more techniques for coping with bosses who have “shiny object syndrome” in this Harvard Business Review piece, “What to Do If Your Boss Gets Distracted by Every New Thing.”
- Hold the floor: If someone interrupts when you’re making a point in a meeting, be mindful about the difference between asking them to wait and shutting them down altogether. Acknowledge them by saying something like, “I’m just going to finish this point/topic/section of the report, and then I’m happy to respond to your questions and concerns.” When you do get to the end, welcome them back into the discussion: “Joe, what did you want to say about the such-and-such issue?”
If you expect that the subject at hand will elicit numerous comments, you may want to preface your remarks with gentle instructions: “I know some of you will want to raise counterarguments, and I want to make sure I hear them all, so I’ve specifically built in time between sections so we can get all your concerns on the table.” When you can maintain a calm and welcoming demeanor — for example, by nodding, looking directly at the interrupter, and smiling — your sense of confidence and control will usually help them stay calm too.