How to manage constant interruptions

Feb 12, 2018


Apologies. This blog is a week late due to… interruptions.

As part of writing a blog about ‘how to manage interruptions’, it made sense to recreate a situation where I experienced continuous interruptions. The plan was to react immediately to what came in – by whatever method – phone, email, social media, person. Coupled with this, I had a to-do list with important deadlines.

It was an interesting experiment. Monday drifted off into Tuesday, with very little real work completed. As for Wednesday, I received a text message at 07.42 am asking me to phone, and I responded immediately. The end result was that for the whole day I jumped to someone else’s tune. It may have been productive – but not with anything that was on my to-do list, which went untouched and unworked on. Had I delayed responding to the text message, even by as little as 30 minutes, the day could have had a very different outcome.

Interruptions are huge time stealers. You set your mind to focus on one task, and then you get interrupted. It doesn’t matter if its someone who has come to talk to you, or if it’s the phone, or an author sends you a text message. You’ve got Facebook open for work, and one of your friends thinks you are there to chat. Interruptions can be never-ending. After 20 minutes you find you’ve crossed nothing off your to-do list; your workload is going nowhere.

There are two kinds of interruptions:

1)The ones you can do something about
2)The ones you can’t do anything about.

The interruptions you can do something about.
We all get these. Your phone rings, social media pings, or other notifications distract you. (For email interruptions read this).

The best way to deal with these is to turn your notifications off.
Every time you respond to a notification, someone else is setting the agenda, not you. The only time this is not advisable is if your role requires you to react immediately to social media posts or phone calls. Don’t check your phone every five minutes. Use the ‘Do Not Disturb’ option whenever you can – usually you can filter important calls. The issue with responding immediately to an incoming message, is that others then come to expect an immediate response at all times. The outcome is that not responding immediately might then be viewed as failure. Check social media in the same way you check your emails – at scheduled times throughout the day.

If you find phone call interruptions are the issue, are you permitted to send calls automatically to voicemail at busy times?

If it isn’t possible to use voicemail, aim to balance your day so you focus on tasks that are easy to pause and pick up again at the time interruptions occur. For example, I completed a Time and Motion Study for one publisher. I analysed that there were always over 30 incoming phone calls between 2pm and 5.30 pm. As soon as the USA publishers got into their offices, the phone would ring. I asked for permission to set the phone to voicemail. Permission refused! The alternative was to change the way of working. Mornings were about spending time completing work that required deep concentration. Short and routine tasks which required less focus, were best saved for afternoons. Once this was put into practice, productivity rose.

Author Sally McGhee refers to each place you receive messages as a ‘collection point’, whether it is a phone, an inbox or post. Her book Take back your Life*, (written before social media), contains principles which are still valid today. It recommends reducing the number of ‘collection points’ you have. If you review every ‘collection point’, is there anything you can do to merge them, so you have fewer places to check?

If your colleagues are always the interruption, is there anything you can do to minimise this? You know better than anyone who to respond to instantly and what you can delay.

Whoever it is, keep a record of how often they interrupt you and for what reason.

Do they always come to you at the same time each day or with the same issue?

If it is your peer or junior colleague is there anything you can do to help them resolve the issue themselves? Do you need to spend a little time either teaching them how to look up information for themselves? Or do you need to write out the detail of how a process works? The way around could be as easy as saying ‘I’m in the middle of something else right now, I’ll come back to you shortly.’ Or responding via email, so they have the information in writing.

If your interruptions always come at the same time, then it is a scheduled interruption. Have a chat with the colleague about the interruptions, see if there is some common ground or anything you can work on to minimise the disruption to your schedule.

With senior colleagues the interruptions will always have urgency or importance attached. The interruptions might not be urgent, but it is to them. Also, time is money. Every time a colleague stands around waiting for something, the clock is ticking. If you find yourself struggling to complete other work as a result, note the frequency and reason for the interruption. Is it at all possible to mediate an alternative? For instance, you could arrange to go to their desk at scheduled times to pick up any queries. This will enable you to focus on your work, your deadlines, your schedules.

Another interruption might be noise. Sometimes trying to focus when you’re stuck in an open plan office may be difficult. If your office policy does not allow headphones, are you allowed to wear discreet earplugs instead?

Other ways to help overcome interruptions involve company or department wide policy changes. You all need to work on this as a team. Some of the most popular options come from a variety of sources, including an old favourite, Fergus Connell’s How to do a great job and go home on time*.

– no one in the office interrupts another member of staff before 11am.

– have set times when you can interrupt others. It might difficult for the first few days but after a while your working pattern adjusts accordingly.

– have a flag system on the desk which indicates ‘do not interrupt’ when working on an immovable deadline.

– share phone duties. One afternoon you ask a colleague to cover your phone calls, and then you return the favour. This allows you to focus on some deep work.

The interruptions you can’t do anything about

It could be that interruptions are the nature of your job. You have to answer the phone at all times, respond instantly to social media, be at your boss’s beck and call all day. Then you need to work with interruptions; it’s your job. If you find you hate working like this, then you need to talk to bookcareers about what publishing role best suits the way you like to work.


*These titles were published quite some time ago.
For recent books, take a look at the shortlist for the newly launched Business Book Awards