Interruptions happen to all of us. Here's what to do about it.
I am more and more fascinated by people’s fascination with productivity.
I don’t think everyone thinks about or sees it the same way.
Even more fascinating.
Many people have great big ideas. Hopes and dreams. They know exactly where they want to go. But can’t figure out the details to get themselves there.
Other people revel in the details. They can plan anything. But they are afraid to dream big. So they hide in the small.
But I had the same conversation with 2 different people recently.
The two people fall in the middle of the range. They generally know what they want to do. And can make a framework to get there. These two people had a different issue:
I could get so much more done if people would stop interrupting me.
Each of these people had in their heads that their day should be completely under their control. That they have a plan, or a to-do list. Of what they want to do. Or the amount of time a certain task should take.
One of these people is a doctor in a busy group practice. The other, someone who works in a large corporate office.
In each conversation, I could sense their level of frustration. These are hardworking, accomplished people. They are mindful about planning their time. They know what they want to achieve. Why can’t people let them do it?
They are not alone.
Mark Murphy, the author of Hundred Percenters: Challenge Your Employees To Give It Their All, and They’ll Give You Even More, quizzed over 6,000 people about their time management. And one of the results was:
71% of people reported frequent interruptions when they are working.
When I spoke with Jane, the doctor, she couldn’t figure out what to do. Nurses and other staff members interrupt the flow of her work several times a day. She wants to answer their questions and consult with them. It means better patient care. But each time she speaks, she knows her day will go later and later. And she wants to be home in time to eat dinner with her kids.
For the office worker, we’ll call him Milo. He works in an office where the office culture is to “pop in and chat.” So Milo finds that every day, he spends up to an hour “chatting” with co-workers. Sometimes about projects, other times about the personal. Milo is one of the senior members of the office. He believes that his availability is important for the team. So he doesn’t think he should cut these conversations short. But it always means that he makes way less progress on his to-do list than he would like.
Given how common interruptions are in the flow of productivity, what should you do about it?
Assume the unexpected will happen every day
Many of us have reached the point where we create these beautiful to-do lists or daily plans. But the plans only include the things we want to accomplish. Not the reality of our daily working life.
Part of the reality of almost everyone’s day is emails and notifications and phone calls. But the in-person conversations especially hard to navigate. Because if you are intentional, you can avoid your inbox and Instagram until a certain time of day. But, when a co-worker steps into your office, it is very difficult to gracefully tell them to take a hike.
So the first step is to accept that you will never have no interruptions and no surprises.
If your mindset is to assume that each day will have an element of surprise. You will be much less frustrated when surprising things happen.
I also wrote about how to get yourself mentally back on track if a negative surprise happens. Because sometimes, getting our head back to the right place after an interruption takes up more time than the interruption itself.
Plan for all aspects of your job/day, not just tasks
For both Jane and Milo, their planning focuses on the tasks associated with their jobs. Beyond seeing patients, Jane needs to write up case reports. And meet with other doctors to discuss holistic care for complicated patients. Milo has slide presentations and spreadsheets and memos to either create or review.
For many of us, our daily plan/list focuses on the things that we want to accomplish. But we don’t take into account all the aspects of our job.
For Jane and Milo, interacting with office members is, in fact, part of the broader scope of their job. Jane needs to give input on medical issues to her staff. To take care of her patients in the best possible way. For Milo, informal conversations are an important. They are part of his leadership responsibilities and guidance to junior team members.
So, many of the interruptions are not actually non-productive aspects of their day. They are actions that should get folded into the plan for each day.
Create blocks of time for “planned interruptions” and blocks of time for “do not disturb”
Some interruptions can’t be avoided. Jane can’t stop medical emergencies from happening during her day. But, her nurses and staff could ask many of their questions all at once. Such as things related to scheduling.
So, it is difficult to kick a co-worker out of your office for no particular reason. But you can also talk to them in advance about the best time to pop in.
With Jane, we talked about scheduling “office hours” into her day. She picked two 20 minute intervals in her day. Time in her daily schedule where she was “supposed” to answer staff questions. So that intead of feeling frustrated that her day wasn’t going exactly as planned. She could accommodate the reality of her job. She felt that was achievable.
Once we broke it down, she realized that the majority of the questions come from 3 people each day. So she didn’t even need to make a broad announcement to the staff. She could talk to each of these people. Tell them that she’d love to have a sit down with them each day at 10:30am. And get all the issues covered at that time. And then let them know from 11:00–1pm, she would not be available to answer questions. Because she would have other things on her schedule after their conversation.
Be realistic about how long things will take when interruptions are a given
For Milo, he also plans on creating a few hour blocks each day where he tells his team members that he needs to focus.
But when we looked at his to-do list. The amount of time he assumed each task would take was based on him working alone in a quiet place.
But that is not the reality of his work environment.
So for him, we discussed adding in “buffer time” for each task. Assume an hour long project would take 90 minutes. Assume that each conference call goes 10 minutes long. Put 20 minutes into his calendar each day for his team to “pop in.”
That way, he doesn’t always feel frustrated that he doesn’t get through his to-do list. And his daily list is more realistic.
For many of us, we start every day with the idea that, if we create the perfect plan, the perfect list, the perfect schedule, the day will be perfect. It will follow our beautiful plan.
How often does that happen?
Instead, we need to assume that we will have to come up against and accommodate the unexpected.
Because, as productivity guru David Allen says:
Your ability to deal with surprise is your competitive edge, and a key to sanity and sustainability in your lifestyle.