One strategy to ensure fewer interruptions at work

"Your emergency is not my priority" By Carsten Knoch on Flickr

Everyone complains about interruptions in the workplace, but most of us accept them as a necessary evil. They’re not. In fact, if you want to do the work you’re truly capable of, eliminating as many of them as possible should be a high priority.

The problem many of us face is that we don’t want to be rude. We think asking for fewer interruptions is selfish. The truth is, if we don’t ask for them, we end up being rude anyway. After stewing privately, we become resentful and snap at people after the interruptions continue. Then we apologize and get even more inhibited about asking for fewer interruptions.

Do you see a pattern here?

If you want to avoid frustrating yourself and your co-workers in this way, and if you ultimately want to do your best work–work that will ultimately benefit those around you as well as yourself–you need to be more assertive in protecting your time. The good news is that you can limit interruptions without being a jerk. All it takes is a few well thought out words.

Try this the next time someone knocks on your door or cubicle wall at a time when you’d prefer to not be interrupted. Continue focusing on your work and say, in a friendly but firm tone: “Is it critical that we talk right now? I want to give you my full attention, but I’m busy at the moment, and I don’t think I’ll be as engaged as I would be if we talked at another time. We can talk now if you want, but I can’t listen as closely as I’d like to. If you come back in XX minutes, I promise I’ll give you my full attention.”

It won’t take long before your co-workers become conditioned to asking “Is this a good time?” instead of assuming it is. By giving the option of talking now and getting half your attention or waiting and getting all of it, you’ll be doing both yourself and them a favor, while ultimately demonstrating that your time is as valuable as theirs.

There’s something else you have to be willing to do: when requesting others’ time, you have to show them the same respect. If you want them to start saying “Is this a good time?” before launching into a monologue, you have to be willing to ask the same question before speaking any further.

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2 Responses to One strategy to ensure fewer interruptions at work

  1. Great write up. Maybe this is why we in Sweden have scheduled work (and social time) breaks. But, that’s probably not the healthiest work environment either.

    I have often thought about cordoning off my cube with caution tape and a bright orange cone when I cannot be disturbed. Too much, or just the right amount of assertiveness? 😉

  2. Great thoughts… I also find visual cues, such as headphones or a closed door can be helpful. At the home office these are agreed upon indicators (that I would prefer only urgent interruptions) that avoid even the brief dialogue that could break the flow of work.

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