It happens to all of us. We have a packed to-do list, but despite working non-stop the whole day, we get less than half done because of constant interruptions. Our co-worker stops by to ask about a project, and dawdles for nearly an hour. Our phone rings off the hook, disrupting our thoughts just when we’ve gained momentum on an important presentation.
Interruptions are one of the biggest causes of wasted time at work. While some are important (like our client calling about a problem with a project) many could have waited for another time, or actually deserve no time at all (like a co-worker venting about her problems with her mother-in-law). Here’s how to deal with them.
1. Set consultation hours.
We’re told that we need to be approachable and cooperative, and sometimes we say (out of a desire to be friendly) ‘you can talk to me anytime.’ However, this is counter-productive. By all means reach out to your staff and make yourself available for meetings and workplace bonding, but set limits.
One step is to designate a day or a time for consultations. This lets people know when you can talk, and hopefully organize their thoughts or concerns so that they can take it up with you all in one go.
This not only lets you write your reports in peace, it prevents people from asking you to make important decisions when you’re distracted or unprepared with information.
2. Set phone appointments.
Tell people what time you’ll call, or if they call you when you’re busy, say: ‘I’m in the middle of something, but let’s talk at 3:00 p.m.’ Avoid playing phone tag—calling someone, then sitting around till he remembers to return your call, then calling back again. Both of you are obviously busy. A phone appointment can help you regain control of your schedules.
3. Curb chatty phone calls.
When you need to make or take an important phone call, set the agenda immediately: what you need to talk about, how much time you think the call needs, and whether it’s convenient or appropriate to talk now. For example: ‘I’d like to discuss changing the venue of our product launch. I just need to tell you possible alternatives. It should take 15 minutes. Are you free to talk now, or what time would you like me to call back?’
Sometimes the conversation will turn to a related, but not essential, topic (for example, the client you’re speaking to may ask about the product launch’s food menu). Say: ‘I’ll get back to you on that. When would you like to discuss it?’ so you don’t waste more time on something that’s not on your agenda.
4. Install caller I.D.
This will help you decide whether or not to take a call in the first place. Some phone models will let you reroute call to another local (like your assistant’s or secretary’s).
5. Keep a notebook by the phone.
This is for writing down important facts or agreements that may have been relayed in the call. Be sure to note the date and time of the call, and who you spoke to. Also note down any action plans or unrelated concerns that you set to discuss another date (ex: ‘Tuesday: email food menu options to client.’
By the way, it’s also important to document important verbal agreements on email. A ‘phone contact report’ can formalize and clarify a discussion (avoiding any confusion) and can be copy-furnished to other relevant parties.
6. Set a time for checking emails.
How many times do you check your email a day? This can waste more than an hour that could be spent on better things than reading funny forwards. Allot an ’email time’ which includes not just reading but responding (so you don’t have to keep going back and forth). Delete unnecessary emails as you scroll down so your inbox doesn’t get clogged, and write down important facts in your notebook so you don’t have to reread a letter to find what you need.
7. Set up a message board.
Corkboards may seem passé in a digital world, but they’re still one of the best time management tools. People can leave messages, pin forms for you to sign, or track down everyone’s whereabouts on a weekly calendar (ex: ‘Joe: 2:00 to 5:00 ocular inspection.’) This will filter out people dropping by your cubicle to leave a document and then hanging out for five minutes, or questions like ‘did anyone call while I was away?’ or ‘Where’s Joe?’
8. Move your desk orientation.
If you can, position your desk and chair so that you don’t face a corridor or a door. You’re more likely to be distracted by sounds or movement, and for some reason, people are less likely to sit down and chat if they see your back and can’t make eye contact.
9. Don’t interrupt yourself.
You stand up to get a drink of water, and find yourself chatting with co-workers at the watercooler for the next half hour. Or, you check your email and then end up browsing your favorite blog too.
Everybody needs a break, but it’s best to schedule these too—and be conscious of when you’ll take it, what you’ll do, and for how long. If your head is swimming from reading column after column of accounting figures, you’ll probably gain more from five-minute walk to clear your head than 45 minutes complaining about your boss to another disgruntled employee.