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Stay Productive by Scheduling Your Interruptions
We’ve gotten good at what we do. We’ve created technology to help us do more. We’ve streamlined our processes so we get stuff done fast. Progress has a dastardly downside, however: the more we can do, the more we commit to do. Everything’s great until some tiny thing goes wrong. Suddenly, we have to ignore one of our other projects to deal with the tiny problem. While we’re ignoring our other project, however, it slides off track and we’re not there to correct it. Like a line of dominos, a slip in one area cascades into ongoing chaos.
The chaos is triggered by a single, simple thing: an interruption. Responding to interruptions means taking time we’d planned for one thing, and using it for another instead. When you’re juggling a dozen balls, interruptions come fast and furious. As I discuss in chapter 4 of my book Get-it-Done Guy's 9 Steps to Work Less and Do More, you can tame your interruptions with a few simple techniques.
Schedule Your Interruptions
The joy of working with other people is that together, we can get much more done than we can alone. Our co-workers and bosses are there to help us achieve greatness, and we’re there to help them achieve greatness. Unfortunately, they want you to help them achieve greatness right now. So they stop by your office with urgent, pressing matters that need your attention immediately.
Be prepared! Grab a piece of paper and write a nice big header, INTERRUPTIONS. This will become your interruption list. When someone zips through your door with something that would knock you off course, your interruption list is where you jot down the details. “Get the product plans to Dahlia.” Some emergencies require immediate attention. If the building is burning down, by all means, leave (and don’t stop to shut down your laptop first!). But many interruptions can be scheduled instead.
Set aside a regular half-hour block of time in the late afternoon as the time you’ll use to catch up on interruptions. When a co-worker intrudes, politely tell them you’ll handle their matter later, during your interruption time. When the time arrives, run through your interruption list and handle anything that’s still pressing. You’ll be surprised at how many emergencies suddenly solve themselves once you’re no longer available to be the immediate rescuer.
If your job hands you a lot of interruptions, but you still need time to focus, you may schedule multiple interruption times each single day. Then you defer any given interruption to the time block that seems most reasonable. If your job is a low-interruption job, having only one or two interruption times each week may make sense.
Set Your Boundaries Respectfully
It can be scary to tell someone you won’t help them right here and now. After all, part of working together is supporting each other when needed. But that works both ways—your co-worker needs to support you, as well. When their needs aren’t immediately time-critical, they need to let you get your work done.
Use respect, and a calm, gentle tone when telling your interrupter that you’ll deal with their issue later in the day. Remind them that when you get your work done, you can be there for them when it’s really important. Frame your message in terms of your needs and their benefits. “In order to give you 100% of my time and attention, I need to give 100% of my time and attention to what I’m working on now. I’ll see you at 4 p.m.” Then shoo them away gently.
Tame technology interruptions
Our other great source of interruptions is technology. Some technology interruptions are really just other people in disguise. Email and instant messaging are just technology’s way of efficiently delivering everyone else’s interruptions, so we can save time by becoming overwhelmed sooner. You can simply close your instant messaging windows and turn off new email notifications to tame those. (You have turned off email notification, haven’t you? If not, do that now.)
The most insidious interruptions from technology come from the seductiveness within the technology itself. While you’re happily working on your report, a news story about the stock market’s latest gyrations is just a mouse click away. It’s easy to convince yourself that you need to read the story right now, and the next thing you know, you’ve interrupted yourself.
Instead of thinking of your technology as a general purpose place you go to do stuff, think of it as a tool. And use it like a tool. When you need a wrench, you take it out, tighten or loosen a bolt, and then put it away. You don’t spend your days sitting in front of a wrench in case you might need it.
If your desk is designed so you’re always in front of your computer, change it! Move the computer away from your center of attention. Move it behind you, or across the room. Move it somewhere so using it requires conscious thought.
When you come to a task that requires the computer as a tool, think before you go to the computer. Write down a list of what you’ll do during your computer time. For example:
This now becomes your computer schedule. Get up, approach the computer. Do one task. When you’re done, stand up and step away. Get a snack. Remind yourself you’ve completed the task. Put the tool down. Then come back to do the next task, and so on. You’ll turn your computer back from a distraction machine into a very useful tool.
We’ve made it possible to do more things than our forerunners could ever imagine. But the rush of activity has also given us a rush of distraction. To achieve the most we have to be able to stay on each task long enough to make progress, even as the rest of our agenda clamors for our attention. By scheduling interruptions, saying “No” to the unimportant, and divorcing our technology, we can save our sanity and still get everything done.
Many more articles in Performance Improvement in The CEO Refresher Archives