In this time of budget and personnel cuts, many of you are doing the work of more than one person, and it's more important than ever to make the most of the time you have each day. Most time management systems recommend setting aside blocks of time during which you can concentrate on your work without interruption. Many people find they can accomplish more in one hour of continuous concentration than they can in a full day subject to the usual interruptions. But what do you do when you've settled down for an undisturbed hour and a colleague, an employee or a client interrupts you?
If you value your good relationships with your peers, your employees and your customers, you might feel powerless to halt interruptions for fear of seeming rude or disrespectful. However, if you want to be the best team player you can be, you must change that thinking. Your usefulness to your company depends on your accomplishing as much as you can each day. And that depends on your reducing the time you lose to interruptions.
Keep in mind that other people will value your time to the extent that you do. The more you indicate calmly, respectfully and assertively that you plan your time and they need to work within the bounds of that planning, the more they will do just that.
If you plan well enough, can you successfully control all interruptions? Of course not. You might have a client who truly will not respect your time management. Your employees might experience true crises that require your attention. There will be times when it's better to allow an interruption than to halt it. These four tips cover those other moments, the thousands of minutes over which you can exercise control.
1. When you must concentrate without interruption, make yourself unavailable and announce your unavailability verbally, by e-mail, by memo and/or by a sign on your door, cubicle or desk. The sign can say, "Do Not Disturb: Working on Deadline," or "Consider Me Out," or "Making Sales Calls," anything that suits your purpose and your organization's culture. If you have a door to close, your job will be much easier. If you don't have a door, don't dilute your "do not disturb" message by looking up and making eye contact with whoever passes by. Keep your eyes and mind on your project, and others will get the message. If someone calls your name, don't respond the first time. Continue to focus on what you are doing. If the person's need is great enough, he or she will tap you on the shoulder or do something else to get your attention. Often, when you do not respond right away, your would-be interrupter will realize you really are concentrating and will go away. If you work at this, you can shape the expectations of those around you so when they see you in that "focusing" position, they will respect it and leave you with your thoughts.
Put "Send me an e-mail" on your sign and other messages if that makes you feel better. This gives employees a means of communicating with you without interrupting you. It also leads to Corollary #1: Do not succumb to the temptation to read your e-mail as it comes in or check for voice mails or look at postal mail. All of these must be off limits during your times of concentration or you've defeated your purpose.
2. If someone does breach your space, stand up to talk with them as a sign that the interruption will be very short. If you can't avoid responding to someone during your "unavailable" time, stand up to talk with them. If you remain seated, it encourages the other person to sit and that sends a message that "we're getting comfortable so we can have a nice long chat." Standing is not as comfortable as sitting, and it's less conducive to long talks; it presents an expectation that the conversation will not take long. Standing also gives you the option to issue a strong "goodbye" message by moving to your chair to sit down again as you say, "Thanks for coming by. We'll talk more in depth when I've finished this project."
3. Avoid giving the impression you're "brushing off" your interrupter by making a date to talk later. There's no need to appear as though you don't have time for colleagues, employees and others in your organization. You simply want to arrange your time so you can spend it more effectively, and that means spending it more meaningfully with colleagues when you do talk with them. Make this clear by saying, "I really want to talk with you about _____," or "I want to catch up with you when we have time to do it without rushing, so can we get together this afternoon?" or at lunch, or tomorrow, and so on. When you commit blocks of time to those who would interrupt you, you're making it clear that you value them. And don't think you have to commit large blocks of time. Sometimes five minutes is all it takes, but those five minutes are better spent outside your "focus" time. And it's all part of the education of those around you--you're teaching them that "I'm unavailable for the next hour " means you're really unavailable.
4. Use the "habit-forming rule" and commit to practicing these tips for six weeks before making any exceptions to them. Once you've set limits (put a sign out, stated your intent to focus for an hour uninterrupted, etc.), don't shoot yourself in the foot by relaxing those limits. You'll find that you want to make exceptions for people you like, for people whom you're particularly afraid of offending, or for just about anyone who darkens your door when you're feeling expansive and believe you can accomplish anything. Don't do it! Enforce your limits for at least six weeks, which is the time some experts say it takes to create a new habit. Make your boundaries the norm before you even think about breaching them.
Time management is primarily a matter of self-discipline, and that's even more true when you're managing interruptions. Remember: Others will respect your time only to the extent that you do. You set the standard, you show the way. Choose to set a high standard for valuing your time.
Scott Miller is vice president of Kirk Miller & Associates Inc., a management consulting firm that writes and presents highly interactive workshops designed to improve productivity, retention and morale through developing employees' soft, or interpersonal, skills.