When I was a middle manager in corporate Australia in my mid-twenties (quite a long time ago!), I read every people management, time management, and leadership book I could find. And one of the most useful pieces of advice I got was about avoiding interruptions, while still being available to my team when they needed me. In brief, you use some sort of signal that you don’t want to be interrupted – closing your office door, putting an object on top of your monitor, or turning your chair at a certain angle.
That worked, but I still needed some extra time to myself, so I used to arrive at the office early, to get some productive time before everybody else arrived. It was the perfect way to avoid interruptions.
Even that doesn’t work anymore.
The world won’t stop for you.
That might have worked in the 1990s (yes, now you know how old I am), but even that doesn’t work anymore. Now, with social media, smartphones, BYOD, and endless Zoom meetings, you might have no quiet time at all. We live in an “always on” world, where it seems impossible to get any peace and quiet.
The good news is: It’s not impossible.
After all, you could switch off all your devices, stay inside, and only go out when you want to! But that’s not practical. What is practical is to set up your own rules about how, when and where you are willing to be interrupted.
Here are five broad guidelines to help you set those rules …
1. Set goals.
Start each week by setting the important goals for the week, and start each day by setting the important goals for the day (or do this the night before, if that works better for you). If you get interrupted by something, consider whether it’s more important and urgent than these goals. If not, get back to your goals.
2. Interrupt yourself.
When you’re working, work! Use something like the Pomodoro Technique (look it up in Google) to work in short bursts, and then switch off with a short break.
Take short breaks during your work, but treat these as breaks between work tasks, so it’s very clear when you’re working and when you’re taking a break. Otherwise it’s difficult to focus on work when you should be working, and it can be difficult to keep your mind off work at other times.
3. Switch off.
Some of the interruptions you get are entirely under your own control, and are easy to eliminate – for example:
- Social media notifications on your phone (turn off notifications)
- Emails from social networks (turn them off; they are usually stored online anyway)
- Email newsletters you no longer read (unsubscribe)
- Notifications from phone apps (disable notifications or uninstall the app)
4. Pick and choose.
Not everybody in your network should have equal access to you. Decide who gets priority access, and create a system to coordinate it (just like airlines do with their frequent flyer programs).
For example, you might choose to only give out your mobile number to family and friends; and everybody else gets the office number. Or you could set up a different ring tone for your immediate family, and ignore all other calls when you’re busy. Or use a special email address for all your newsletter subscriptions, and set up a rule to automatically file them in a Reading folder.
5. Get it right next time.
I’m not asking you to fix everything at once. But it’s useful to pause after every interruption and ask yourself, “How could I prevent this from happening again?” Sometimes you might decide you don’t want to prevent it, because it really is important. But you’ll find plenty of opportunities to avoid future interruptions – for example:
- Delegate more to your team.
- Document something better, so they don’t need to ask you again.
- Use checklists, templates and forms for common tasks, so things don’t get overlooked.
- Hire, outsource or contract staff to handle things you shouldn’t be handling.
- Stop being so reactive to everything.
How can you use this?
Don’t expect the rest of the world to sit back and wait for you. If you don’t create your own systems to channel the chaos, you’ll continue to be frustrated, stressed, and overwhelmed. So take charge. Your life, your rules.
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