This article was originally published on SimpleProductivityBlog.com on 6 February 2012. It has been updated for this posting.
One of the challenges to staying focused is interruptions from others. Being pulled off task can result in anything from loss of train of thought to major interruptions that pull you off task for hours. Since we can’t lock ourselves into a room to avoid distractions, we have to learn how to deal with them. Here are three strategies I use to deal with interruptions.
1. Turn Off
Phone, email and instant messenger are interruptions on our end, but the people calling and sending might not realize they are interrupting. My solution: turn them off.
Before you start working on a task that requires time and concentration, exit your email and instant message programs, and send your phone to voice mail (or turn it off). The email and instant messages will be there when you return; and the phone calls will go to voice mail.
If you feel you need to let people know you are concentrating on a task, and not, say, out fishing, you can use some tricks to do this:
- Email auto-responders: every modern email program I have seen has some form of out-of-office feature. You can turn this on and let people know you will be checking your email at a certain time, and will get back to them after that.
- Instant Message Tag Line: Most instant message statuses include some way to put a tag line in. Before you exit the program, change yours to indicate your are busy but will be back online at a certain time.
- Phone Greetings: Setting up voice mail greetings is not difficult. Change yours to indicate that you are busy and you will return all calls after a certain time.
2. Postpone the People
One interruption that is hard to ignore is people popping up at your elbow when you are working. If you have an office with a door, close it. Or as one of my co-workers does, schedule a conference room and hide out there for a few hours.
If you work in an open cube arrangement, post a sign that you are busy and will be free at a certain time. Since some people may not see that, follow that up by putting in headphones. (Pink noise work well for blocking out sounds).
For those truly clueless people who will ignore all of the above, quickly determine the nature of their business. If it is work-related, tell them you will look into it and get back to them; if it is social, ask if you can meet them for lunch (this is a great tip from one of the readers!)
3. Make a List
The hardest distraction of all to turn off is the chatter in your head. Persistent thoughts of things you need to accomplish can derail a task as surely as if you had tap dancers on your desk.
The best way to deal with this type of distraction is to make a list. As soon as the first distracting thought occurs, write it down, and get back to your task. Repeat as often as necessary. Deal with the list as you would the other distractions, when your focused time is over.
Being interrupted doesn’t have to turn into a major detour. By turning things off, postponing people and making lists, you can get either prevent interruptions or prevent them from destroying your focus.