How to Manage Workplace Interruptions

It’s no secret we get distracted at work. It happens to everyone. We’re human, and even though we are paid to spend 8 hours a day working, it doesn’t happen. When you sit down and take a hard look at what distracts you or what interruptions may come your way, it can all be broken down into two categories, self-inflicted and group-inflicted.

I’m going to focus on the self-inflicted interruptions. I think it’s too easy to fall into a rut where we let interruptions manage our time and aren’t able to clearly grasp what’s pulling us away.

That’s why you must define your time. Don’t give your time to someone else. Be stingy with it. You have work to do, and if it doesn’t get done you either end up taking it home or pay the price of missing a deadline. Telling your boss, “I’m sorry I didn’t get that report done. I spent an hour looking at Bob’s pictures from his trip to Australia,” isn’t going to cut it. Are Bob’s pictures so important that you would jeopardize more than just your time?  NO!  So why were you looking at Bob’s pictures? Because you didn’t want to hurt his feelings or you really didn’t feel like working on that report. Next time, just say, “Thanks for offering Bob, but it’s not a good time.  When I finish this up, I’ll come take a look.” You don’t have to be rude about it, just let it be known.

It doesn’t have to be Bob’s pictures. It can be anything, helping a co-worker with a project because you’re bored with work, listening to a funny story about your teammate’s kids because you don’t want to call a client back, lamenting about the horrible traffic jam this morning because you aren’t ready to look your to-do list in the eye, and so on. The bottom line is, we either choose to engage in the distractions or we don’t.

And we know we’re going to face interruptions throughout the day, so why don’t we just plan for those? Determine the time or times throughout the day when you’re the most unproductive or when you know you aren’t going to accomplish the big tasks on your to-do list. Use that time to do some of the more mundane tasks--things that still lead to overall productivity, but maybe they don’t require as much brain power.

But what about the times we're unable to manage our distractions individually? We can't always pick up on our own interruptions. Sometimes we need to be told.

That brings to mind an exercise a manager once had us do years ago. He made everyone on our team write down exactly what we did as soon as we were on the clock.  We did this  throughout the week. Then the following week, we all reviewed areas that needed improvement and devised our own productivity strategies. It was shocking to some people that what they thought was honest work was nothing more than wasted minutes (or hours). We kept at it with the exercise for a few more weeks until our time management strategies blossomed. Soon after, we set the limits we needed to set, put aside all the non-work related materials that caught our eye too often and shed new light to how productive we all can be.

Try it out for a couple of days. No one needs to know. It’s not something you want to brag about to your boss when you realize that during any given day you only do about 15 minutes of real work. However, if you weed out those self-inflicted interruptions and rearrange your priorities for when you’re most productive, the boss might start bragging about you.

At the end of the day, it's about getting stuff done and remembering that your time is just as valuable as the next person one cube over. What have you done recently to limit your own distractions?

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