Managing Interruptions So You Get More Done

These four tips will help you improve your time management skills.

In this time of budget and personnel cuts, many of you are doingthe work of more than one person, and it's more important thanever to make the most of the time you have each day. Most timemanagement systems recommend setting aside blocks of time duringwhich you can concentrate on your work without interruption. Manypeople find they can accomplish more in one hour of continuousconcentration than they can in a full day subject to the usualinterruptions. But what do you do when you've settled down foran undisturbed hour and a colleague, an employee or a clientinterrupts you?

If you value your good relationships with your peers, youremployees and your customers, you might feel powerless to haltinterruptions for fear of seeming rude or disrespectful. However,if you want to be the best team player you can be, you must changethat thinking. Your usefulness to your company depends on youraccomplishing as much as you can each day. And that depends on yourreducing the time you lose to interruptions.

Keep in mind that other people will value your time to theextent that you do. The more you indicate calmly, respectfully andassertively that you plan your time and they need to work withinthe bounds of that planning, the more they will do just that.

If you plan well enough, can you successfully control allinterruptions? Of course not. You might have a client who trulywill not respect your time management. Your employees mightexperience true crises that require your attention. There will betimes when it's better to allow an interruption than to haltit. These four tips cover those other moments, the thousands ofminutes over which you can exercise control.

1. When you must concentrate without interruption, makeyourself unavailable and announce your unavailability verbally, bye-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'sculture. 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 notdisturb" message by looking up and making eye contact withwhoever passes by. Keep your eyes and mind on your project, andothers will get the message. If someone calls your name, don'trespond the first time. Continue to focus on what you are doing. Ifthe person's need is great enough, he or she will tap you onthe shoulder or do something else to get your attention. Often,when you do not respond right away, your would-be interrupter willrealize you really are concentrating and will go away. If you workat this, you can shape the expectations of those around you so whenthey see you in that "focusing" position, they willrespect it and leave you with your thoughts.

Put "Send me an e-mail" on your sign and othermessages if that makes you feel better. This gives employees ameans of communicating with you without interrupting you. It alsoleads to Corollary #1: Do not succumb to the temptation to readyour e-mail as it comes in or check for voice mails or look atpostal mail. All of these must be off limits during your times ofconcentration or you've defeated your purpose.

2. If someone does breach your space, stand up to talk withthem as a sign that the interruption will be very short. If youcan't avoid responding to someone during your"unavailable" time, stand up to talk with them. If youremain seated, it encourages the other person to sit and that sendsa message that "we're getting comfortable so we can have anice long chat." Standing is not as comfortable as sitting,and it's less conducive to long talks; it presents anexpectation that the conversation will not take long. Standing alsogives you the option to issue a strong "goodbye" messageby moving to your chair to sit down again as you say, "Thanksfor coming by. We'll talk more in depth when I've finishedthis project."

3. Avoid giving the impression you're "brushingoff" your interrupter by making a date to talk later.There's no need to appear as though you don't have time forcolleagues, employees and others in your organization. You simplywant to arrange your time so you can spend it more effectively, andthat means spending it more meaningfully with colleagues when youdo talk with them. Make this clear by saying, "I really wantto talk with you about _____," or "I want to catch upwith you when we have time to do it without rushing, so can we gettogether 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 thinkyou have to commit large blocks of time. Sometimes five minutes isall it takes, but those five minutes are better spent outside your"focus" time. And it's all part of the education ofthose around you--you're teaching them that "I'munavailable for the next hour " means you're reallyunavailable.

4. Use the "habit-forming rule" and commit topracticing these tips for six weeks before making any exceptions tothem. Once you've set limits (put a sign out, stated yourintent to focus for an hour uninterrupted, etc.), don't shootyourself in the foot by relaxing those limits. You'll find thatyou want to make exceptions for people you like, for people whomyou're particularly afraid of offending, or for just aboutanyone who darkens your door when you're feeling expansive andbelieve you can accomplish anything. Don't do it! Enforce yourlimits for at least six weeks, which is the time some experts sayit takes to create a new habit. Make your boundaries the normbefore you even think about breaching them.

Time management is primarily a matter of self-discipline, andthat's even more true when you're managing interruptions.Remember: Others will respect your time only to the extent that youdo. You set the standard, you show the way. Choose to set a highstandard for valuing your time.

Scott Miller is vice president of Kirk Miller& Associates Inc., a management consulting firm that writesand presents highly interactive workshops designed to improveproductivity, retention and morale through developingemployees' soft, or interpersonal, skills.

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