14th October 2016

Minimize the Impact of Interruptions

It does not take an emergency to shatter your work focus. The ordinary conditions of modern work life have made interruptions a routine part of our days. Open space plans, communal work spaces, and the proliferation of technology devices have resulted in very distracted workers. In an Office Workplace Productivity study, 61 percent of respondents claimed noisy co-workers as the biggest distraction in the workplace. The same survey also found that 40 percent of workers said that impromptu meetings from co-workers stopping by their workspace were a significant office distraction.

These interruptions come at a high price. Excessive interruptions affect human behavior by increasing stress and by negatively impacting recall, accuracy, efficiency, and ultimate performance. Interruptions are undermining our ability to effectively and efficiently complete our work. It is time for you to take back control and halt the incessant interruptions.

Since productivity is highly personal, your strategy to manage interruptions should reflect your thinking style as well as the realities of your work environment and office culture. Of course, it should also be tailored to your personal Productivity Style (Refresher: Are you the Prioritizer, the Planner, the Arranger, or the Visualizer? Or don’t know your Productivity Style and want to find out – take the Productivity Style Assessment®.). Take a look at the list below and see how many of the strategies suggested there might help you minimize the impact of interruptions on your own productivity.

Here are some key strategies to minimize the impact of interruptions:


Try This Strategy: A productivity strength of yours is your ability to complete significant amounts of work and keep your head down. Leverage this strength by communicating open door/open office hours to your colleagues. Let them know when you are available, each day. Even if you work in an open office space, you can still establish “interruption hours,” leaving other periods when your colleagues know that you need to work without being disturbed.

How It Can Work:One of our clients, a medical technology company, instituted a “stoplight system” in their office. Each team member hangs a colored square on their cube wall indicating their current level of focus and engagement as well as their willingness to be interrupted. A red square signals that the only reason to be interrupted is if there is an emergency and the building is burning down. A yellow card means you are working on a project that requires a significant amount of focus and concentration, so proceed with caution when interrupting. A green card means you are open and available for impromptu meetings or questions. Consider using the stoplight system to manage the interruption traffic in your office.


Try This Strategy:Use your planning muscle by setting appointments with colleagues instead of accommodating drive-bys or stop-ins. When a colleague comes by and asks whether you have a minute to discuss a project, you might respond, “Right now, I don’t have time, but we can talk tomorrow at 10:00 a.m., when I’ll be able to be fully present and able to focus on the project.” You can also redirect your colleague by suggesting that someone else might be able to help them.

How It Can Work:My client Jeremy is known as the problem solver in his office. He is calm and cool in a crisis and always willing to provide additional information or tools to solve a problem. As a result, Jeremy was consistently interrupted throughout his work day. To take back control of his calendar, Jeremy worked with the IT department in his firm to make his calendar viewable by everyone in the office. He meticulously kept his calendar current, indicating when he was available and when he was engaged in project work, and printed it out for posting next to his office door. Now Jeremy’s colleagues make an appointment when they need his help. Sometimes they roll their eyes over his carefully planned days, but they now receive the answers and ideas they need to tackle their latest crises without disrupting Jeremy’s work day.


Try This Strategy:Leverage your interpersonal skills by reframing how you approach interruptions. Institute a personal chat budget and let your colleagues know when you are coming close to exceeding your budget.

How It Can Work:My client Sandy is a warm, gracious, smart, savvy woman who has become the go-to person in her office for training and instructional design questions. Sandy enjoys being a resource for her colleagues and has cultivated personal relationships with most of them. However, her office looks like a train station at rush hour with all of the coming and goings. Sandy’s productivity was starting to decline and she was staying late to complete her work, encroaching on her family time. So she decided to institute a personal chat budget. Each day she now gives herself thirty minutes a day for personal chatting. When colleagues come to her office for help, she answers their questions, then lets them know that she is about to exceed her chat budget so she is going to have to get back to work. Sandy’s colleagues laugh, honor her chat budget, and still feel supported and valued by her.


Try This Strategy:Use your appreciation of novelty to stimulate you by changing the scenery. Find a conference room on another floor, visit the office cafeteria on off-hours, or go to a local coffee shop where you can complete your work uninterrupted. If you must stay in your office environment, minimize external distractions by using headphones (with or without music playing) or physically reorient your body so people cannot catch your eye.

How It Can Work:My client Carlos is known throughout the office as the guy who has an office, but is never in it. When it’s time for him to brainstorm new ideas, he works in the cafeteria; when he needs to write or outline ideas, he goes to the Starbucks down the street where he sits in the back corner with his Bose headphones on, listening to the Grateful Dead. And when he really needs to escape, he goes up to the legal department offices on the tenth floor and works in one of the open cubes along the back wall. Of course, when he gets restless, he goes back to the cafeteria where there’s always something going on!

We cannot control all the behaviors of our colleagues; in many companies, we cannot put back up the walls in our open-plan offices. However, you can use the strengths of your Productivity Style to minimize the impact of interruptions on you and your ability to complete your work.