So it’s a busy day but you’re feeling good because you are on a roll, making real progress on that task list or an important project; all of a sudden the phone rings, an email alarm goes off, a colleague asks for a favor, your mother-in-law stops by “spur of the moment,” you’re called to school to pick up a sick child, etc. Oh darn, sidetracked … again!
Experts estimate that the average American worker is treated to around 50 interruptions per day, 70% of which have nothing to do with work. Add family, friends and children to the mix and you may even double that number.
Your definition of “interruption” may affect one way or the other whether or not you agree with this number, but in basic terms an interruption is anything that you didn’t expect to happen at that time and that either delays or sidetracks you from what you are doing.
Regardless of the nature or level of inconvenience they may cause, the first thing to keep in mind about interruptions is that they are rarely intended to be disruptive. The simple truth is that most people you come in contact with during any given day have their own agenda that may or may not include consideration for your schedule or priorities.
If you honestly consider how hard it is to change yourself, you’ll understand what little chance you have trying to change the behavior of others. ~Author Unknown
Assuming that it’s an unrealistic to expect to change the behavior of most people we come in contact with, attempting to prevent all interruptions would be a frustrating exercise in futility. But with some thoughtful planning, a measure of flexibility and a little attitude adjustment here and there, you can effectively reduce unnecessary disruptions and avoid being sidetracked from the things that really matter.
6 Tips to Manage Interruptions
Own Your Interruptions
Your attitude toward interruptions will play a key role in how you respond to them. Try thinking of an interruption as an offer and it is your decision whether or not to accept the interruption (offer) or to issue a counter-offer.
For example, it’s okay to say “Thanks for your call/visit. I do want to speak with you, but now is not a good time. Can we talk/meet at 2:00 p.m. instead?” There … you just made a counter-offer.
Use Delay Tactics to Avoid Making Hasty Decisions
It’s easy to get caught off guard with unexpected or last minute requests, in fact there are those who will intentionally ask for favors when you’re the busiest because they know you’re less likely to ask questions when you’re distracted.
Using a delay tactic can help you avoid agreeing to a commitment just to keep from getting sidetracked. Don’t waste your energy or time attempting to explain how busy you are; simply tell the person you will be happy to get back to them after you’ve had time to check your schedule. This will give you an opportunity to consider the request as well as any additional information you may need, and keep you from making an on-the-spot decision you may regret later. If the person balks at the delay, then you get to practice saying “no” without feeling guilty.
Prioritize Your Interruptions
Life being the grand adventure that it is, there will always be interruptions we can’t possibly predict and you’ll have to do the best you can to prioritize them on the spot. But there are many more that you can anticipate; in fact research indicates that on average 80% of our interruptions come from 20% of the people we come into contact with on a regular basis.
For example there may be certain people in your life who always wait until the last minute to ask for favors, or maybe a co-worker who makes a habit of procrastinating on an assignment until the last minute and then pleading for your help. These are predictable behaviors that you can plan to either deflect or make time for.
Technically having to pick your sick child up from school could be classified as an interruption, but of course that would be far more important than the previous examples, or for that matter anything else on your task list. Likewise, you may have a friend who is notoriously disorganized, but you’re willing to accept any disruptions they may create because you highly value the relationship.
Reaffirming what (and who) matters most to you and defining unacceptable behaviors allows you to set healthy boundaries and establish your priorities. This way if you find yourself faced with an interruption that does not make the grade, it will be much easier to choose to politely deflect it.
If I had a dollar for every time I got distracted … you know I could really go for some ice cream right about now. 🙂
Plan for Interruptions
Often, the interruption itself is not as disruptive as having to play catch-up afterword. So before you “accept” an interruption, take a moment to make a note about where you are in your work, the next action you were planning to take, and consider whether you can delegate it to someone else. Taking the time to write down where you are and what you need to do to get back on track can go a long way toward reducing stress and save precious time.
When Your Boss is the Interrupter
In a busy work environment it’s easy to occasionally find yourself being pulled in different directions at the same time; but that doesn’t mean you are helpless. Let’s say your boss interrupts you mid-project with a new “rush” assignment; take time to calmly review with him/her what’s already on your plate and explain that since taking on the new assignment will delay completion of other work, ask that he/she make the determination about which of your projects has priority.
Learn to Say “No” Without Guilt
Almost everyone struggles with having to say no. It makes us feel selfish, guilty, even embarrassed. We don’t want to upset people or have them think badly of us, so sometimes it’s easier to say “yes,” than to deal with our anxiety or other people’s reactions. The problem is, very often saying yes to someone else is saying no to you.
If you struggle with saying “no” the best gift you can give yourself is to take time before you give an answer in order to think realistically about what saying yes will mean to you and whether or not you are willing to make the trade-off. Keep in mind that even if your first thought is to say no, taking a little time before answering will give the other person the impression you care enough to at least consider their request.
If you decide to say no keep your answer short and sweet – you have nothing to feel guilty about or apologize for because you’ve done nothing wrong. Saying “no” makes a lot of people nervous so they keep talking and talking, but that usually only makes things worse and sometimes without even realizing what’s happening our “no” ends up getting twisted into a “yes.”
The firmer your grasp on your priorities, values and standards, the less inclined you’ll be to feel guilty when you have to say no.
The things that matter most must never be at the mercy of things that matter least. ~Goethe
Interruptions don’t have to sidetrack your day. The next time something happens to set you back, or derail your plans, why not try flexing your adaptability skills and ask yourself if there isn’t a way to turn the situation into a positive. By mastering a few solid strategies, you can learn to manage and reduce the adverse effects of interruptions, and enjoy a much calmer and more productive day.
Let today be the day you give up who you’ve been for who you can become.
About Marquita Herald
Marquita is an author, resilience coach and the chief evangelist at Emotionally Resilient Living. She’s also an unapologetic workaholic who loves red wine, rock n’ roll, road trips (and car dancing!), peanut butter cookies and (especially) a dog named Lucy.
She’s saddened and frustrated by excuses and cruelty and believes authentic compassion is the most powerful force in the world.
To learn more about Marquita and the mission of Emotionally Resilient Living click “here“.