How to Say No to the Employee Who Interrupts

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Author of 'The Time Bandit Solution' and Co-Founder of Cohen Brown Management Group
4 min read
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People who steal your time with their interruptions are time bandits. Your interrupters walk away with your time just as surely as if they had walked in, grabbed your smartphone and walked out. You might get your phone back. But you'll never get that hour back.

If you saw a bandit palm your phone, wouldn’t you sit up straight and say, “Whoa, I’ll take that back." If someone accidentally ended up with your credit card after lunch, you wouldn’t have any trouble saying, “I’m going to need that.” Or would you? 

So why do people let time bandits steal something infinitely more precious without objecting?

Most of the time a time bandit is someone whose relationship you value -- like a co-worker. My surveys have found that 93 percent of workers say yes when asked if they are “often interrupted” at work. They say 68 percent of those interruptions come from colleagues inside the company.

Related: How Fortune 500 Leaders Spend Every Minute of the Day (Infographic)

No one wants to be disagreeable and say, Go away. I’m too busy to deal with you now.” People want to be helpful and they like to respond when a colleague is in need. But would you be offended if you were the would-be time bandit and politely heard something like this?

“Hello, Ella. Nice to see you. I can see that you would like to talk to me about that report you’re carrying, and I would like to give you my full attention. But I recently read a book that explains what I half suspected -- that we lose hours of productive time every day because of interruptions. So I have started to time lock for a half an hour at a time when I have critical tasks to complete. I happen to be in a time lock right now. So would it be OK if we spoke afterward?”

Ella asks, reasonably enough, “What’s a time lock?”

“It means my committing to working uninterrupted for a specified period of time, unless a true emergency arises -- in which case, of course, I would break my time lock and talk to you. This allows me to provide you with my undivided attention when we do speak.”

Fortunately, Ella and your other time bandits are bound to recognize your dilemma. They also suffer from interruptions. If you say things politely, they won’t take it personally. And when Susan says, “Oh, OK, please give me a call as soon as you end your time lock,” you can reciprocate, “Then next time you need a time lock, don’t hesitate to let me cover for you so that you can work without interruption.”

Related: How Much Is the Noise in Your Open Office Costing You?

But what if it’s not any old colleague but your boss who interrupts you? Try out this response:

“Boss, between now and 3 p.m., I am actually time locking to complete the extremely important task you have given me. I promise to get back to you at precisely 3 p.m. Will that work for you? If not, of course I will make time for you now.”

A manager would be foolish to interfere with a subordinate’s productivity without a pressing reason.

What if the time bandit is a customer or client? Try the following:

"Mr. Woods, I am glad you called and I would be pleased to talk with you about that issue when I can give it and you my full attention and my best creativity. Right now I am time locked on an urgent research project that will make it possible for me to serve you and my other customers better. May I call you back any time after 2 p.m. this afternoon to give you my undivided attention?”

Would any client be offended by such a polite, thoughtful request? I can promise you based on my own long experience that no, the customer will not be offended. By and large when you learn the right way to explain your new work flow, people will think you are more professional. It will cement their bonding with you and they'll happily cooperate.

Related: Study: Office Plants Can Boost Productivity and Morale

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