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Handling Interruptions

Interruptions are a normal part of work life, especially if you are a smart and talented worker or manager. It’s natural for your colleagues and staff to want to talk to you if you can help them with their work.

Whether you answer difficult questions, provide guidance, or point people in the right direction, helping others can be a valuable service to your team and your company.

That being said, interruptions can also be a tremendous drain and time waster. The key to handle interruptions effectively is to ensure that you are making the best use of your time in each case.

One approach to eliminate interruptions would be to close your door, unhook your telephone, and get all your work done without any distractions. Having no interruptions would certainly increase your own personal productivity, but this would be a short-sighted victory.

A key insight that the higher levels of time management provide is that the overall productivity of your team, your division, and your company is often much more important than your own personal productivity.

This is especially true if you are a manager or team leader; your true productivity is based on the output of your entire team, not just your own. As your level of responsibility increases, you have a much greater impact on the productivity of everyone around you.

With this insight, interruptions take on a whole different light. Instead of always being time wasters, some of them become opportunities to help increase the productivity and effectiveness of your team.

If spending a few minutes with a colleague allows him or her to continue working productively rather than staying stuck on a problem for hours waiting for you to become available, the return on your small time investment becomes substantial.

The key is to distinguish the important interruptions from the true time wasters and handle each in an appropriate way.

Determine the Nature of the Interruption

The first thing you must do in order to manage interruptions effectively is to get in the habit of identifying the type, importance, and urgency of the interruption as quickly as possible.

Your primary goal should be to find out enough information about the interruption to decide the best way to handle it. Keep asking questions until you have enough information to decide.

Establish Regular Visiting Hours

Even valuable interruptions have a cost. A typical interruption may take anywhere from five to fifteen minutes to complete, and it may take you another fifteen minutes just to get back on track.

A good strategy to balance the need for uninterrupted time to get your own work done while remaining available to your teammates and colleagues is to set aside regular 30 to 60 minute blocks for visits. This is very similar to the way college professors set up regular "office hours" for their students.

Inform your staff that these visiting hours are the best time to get in touch with you for non-emergency questions, discussions, or problem that are not preventing them from doing productive work.

Emphasize that if they have a genuine emergency or can’t do productive work until the issue is resolved, they should come talk to you right away, but otherwise they should try to wait until the regular visiting hours.

It is better to setup two or three small visiting hour blocks each day (one in the morning, one after lunch, and one towards the end of the day) rather than a single large one since it reduces the amount of time people have to wait to get in touch with you.

Extend Visiting Hours to the Whole Team

You are not the only one affected by interruptions. The productivity of you staff and colleagues are equally affected by excessive interruptions.

If you have the ability to establish policies for your team or project, a useful practice is to extend the concept of visiting hours to the whole team. You’ll find that most people will gladly postpone non-urgent interruptions and respect the visiting hours concept if it means that they too will get uninterrupted time to complete their own work.

The June 2004 issue of Inc. magazine reported on the findings of Harvard University researcher Leslie Perlow, who did a yearlong survey on a team of software engineers at a high-tech firm.

Perlow found that engineers were frequently interrupted and seldom had more than an hour each day to concentrate on any one task. As you can imagine, this is not nearly enough time to do productive work for something as complex as writing software.

Perlow introduced “quiet time” where no one was allowed to interrupt anyone else from the start of the workday until noon. The engineers reported a 65% improvement in productivity.

From my experience, small visiting hour blocks three times a day are more effective than a single large block of “quiet time” because they provide structure to interruptions throughout the day and reduce the amount of time people have to wait in order to get an answer or discuss an issue.

With the quiet time approach, a staff member who discovers an issue or runs into a problem early in the morning would have to wait until noon to see you, and the afternoon would be an interruption free-for-all once again.

If you institute a "visiting hours" policy, you should make it clear that interruptions outside of visiting hours are not forbidden, but rather discouraged. If a person has an urgent issue or can’t continue productive work, they should interrupt you right away so they can get back to work.

For the most part, this type of policy usually cannot be instituted by the employees individually but often require the cooperation and involvement of company management or project leadership.

The time management eBook provides more examples and strategies that you can use to handle interruptions effectively.

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If you'd like additional help, time management coaching and life coaching are both a great resource to implement these ideas and improve your time management skills. You can use personal coaching or group coaching depending on your needs.

In a corporate setting, executive coaching is also very valuable to help you be more productive and perform at your best.

 

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