Try these strategies to manage interruptions

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It’s just about impossible to avoid getting interrupted. As a result, we all need some better strategies to manage interruptions….

By Ann Gomez

Pssst. Have a minute?

I’m going to let you in on a secret. If you want to get the most out of your time, you need to manage interruptions.

Two decades ago, during the early stage of my career, many people (including me) thought multitasking gave us an advantage. But fast-forward to today and most people know focusing is so much better than multitasking.

Focusing on one task at a time is faster, leads to better quality work, and is easier to manage.

However, despite this awareness, many people still allow themselves to multitask throughout their day.

For example, they:

  • Keep email open on a second screen all day long
  • Have alerts pop up on their phone or watch
  • Frequently jump from task A to task B then back to task A
  • Check their phone during in-person meetings
  • Work on other tasks during video calls

If you can relate to any of the above, you’re not alone.

In fact, research shows the temptation to look at media, such as work-related email, texts, and chats, is stronger than the temptations associated with tobacco or alcohol.

The top source of interruptions

When we think about interruptions, we often think about them – meaning other people. We have drop-by visitors (when we’re in the office), unscheduled calls, and maybe even group chats online. But it helps to recognize that we are our number one source of interruptions.

We choose to check email. We choose to stop in the middle of one task to start another. We choose to get up and check the fridge yet again. When we add our self-imposed interruptions to our external sources of interruptions, it’s a wonder we get anything done!

How to manage interruptions

We all need to be accessible and responsive. But we have to balance this goal with our equally important need to protect focus time.

Here are six strategies to manage interruptions and improve your focus:

  1. Schedule your focus time. This is akin to booking a meeting with yourself. Minimize your email and turn off all notifications to avoid distractions and the lure of the dopamine reward.
  2. Use a timer. As I mentioned last week, a timer is one of my favourite ways to keep my monkey mind focused on my most important task at this time.
  3. Close your door from time to time. I’m generally a fan of an open-door policy, except when you are trying to focus. Try closing your door for 1-2 hours so you can dive into deep work. I’m talking about the kind of work Cal Newport describes as a “superpower,” where you produce high-value output quickly and efficiently. You can also try the stand-up technique to politely limit unannounced and non-urgent visits.
  4. Let unscheduled calls go to voicemail. This is especially true for numbers you don’t recognize. Sure, you might want to pick up the phone if it’s your top client or close colleague. They likely wouldn’t call if it wasn’t urgent. But otherwise, you can manage the majority of calls by following-up in between your focus work sessions.
  5. Use “office hours” to batch process impromptu requests.
  6. Set up recurring one-on-one meetings to address any questions (that can reasonably wait) in bulk. Sometimes, four or five back-and-forth emails can be resolved in a five-minute chat.

Admittedly, there will be exceptions and valid interruptions. But our goal isn’t perfection. Rather, we simply want to protect more focus time. Balancing our need to be responsive with our own equally important need to focus is key to doing our best work and achieving our top priorities.

For more information about using the power of focus to get more done, see Ann’s latest book, Workday Warrior: A Proven Path to Reclaiming Your Time, published by Dundurn Press, 2022.

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