6 Tips to Effectively Manage Interruptions

Written by on February 26, 2015 in Accountability

Tips to Manage InterruptionsSo 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 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.


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  1. Welcome Sherill! I’m glad you found value in the article, and thanks for taking the time to contribute to the conversation.

  2. Sherill says:

    I just loved your tips on handling interruptions. It made me think of how often this happens everyday ! Thumbs up!

  3. lynne

    Great post! Interruptions can really keep us away from focusing on our current task, but knowing how to turn it into a positive note can definitely make us more organized and productive. Thanks so much for sharing.

  4. Jenni Ryan

    Wow I think most of us can relate to this post about interruptions. I don’t think there woudl be anyone who is not effected by interruptions and distractions in their day. I know for sure that if you have your set tasks for the day its much easier to stay on track but not everyone is disciplined enough to write out their tasks every day. Thanks for sharing.
    Jenni Ryan recently posted…The Secret to MLM SuccessMy Profile

  5. If we don’t manage those interruptions, Marquita, they will certainly manage us.

    You’ve given sound advice on setting up your work time parameters to maximize productivity over “busy.”

    I like using the “Pomodoro Method” whereby you set a timer (the old kitchen pomodoro timer) and when you’re “on task,” you don’t allow anything at all to invade your space until the timer goes off. Then you take time to do a few things you need to tend to, then reset the timer and get back on task. Your projects then get defined in terms of how many “pomodoros” are required, rather than how much “time.” The advantage of this is that if an important task requires “5 pomodoros” then you just make sure to go through 5 pomodoro exercise sessions, and you’ll be assured of completing it.

    Thanks for the good suggestions here, Marquita. We’ll continue to fight the interruption monster, won’t we.
    David Merrill 101 recently posted…Building An Online BusinessMy Profile

  6. Good tips for all of us–even when we work from home. With the job I do, I get to concentrating so much that I have built interruptions into my day on purpose! When I was in a corporate office, though, the interruptions were insane. There would be days I put a sign on my door, “This is not a revolving door.” Co-workers knew to think about whether or not their reason for popping in was worth interrupting me. It was a fun way to do it!
    Rose M Griffith recently posted…Snotnose 38 and Other Childhood TraumasMy Profile

  7. Marquita — We need to recognize that sometimes we’re the interrupters. Almost always when I call someone I’ll ask, “Is this a bad time to talk?” We’re all busy people and often my friend or business colleague will welcome that consideration and say “no” and we’ll schedule a time when it is more convenient. There is nothing worse than have a long phone call and then have someone say, “I really needed to be out of here 10 minutes go and I’ve got to run because I’ll be late for my appointment.” It’s not rude to tell someone you can’t talk at that moment.
    Jeannette Paladino recently posted…Inc. 500 Companies Report Miniscule Sales From Social MediaMy Profile

  8. William Rusho

    Thank you, those are great suggestions. I know on some days, they are made up of nothing but interruptions. I like your tip about prioritizing them.

  9. If you don’t already use one, I highly recommend giving journaling a try Lorraine. I’ve seen firsthand the power of journaling to promote personal growth and help people work through all sorts of issues from low self esteem to the full range of fears. It can help you begin to confront the memories and find the words to express them in a constructive way before you attempt to write your book. Sometimes just the thought of exposing our vulnerabilities to others can prevent us from moving forward. However you do it, take the first step. 🙂

  10. Yeah, I guess I’ve been avoiding writing my books because of the painful memories. However, I know I have to power through the emotions if I’m ever to complete writing them!

    Thanks for bringing this to my attention! Your comment actually helped. 🙂
    Lorraine Reguly recently posted…Lisa Gardner’s FEAR NOTHING: An Autographed Copy + a #bookreviewMy Profile

  11. You are so right about time having a wonderful way of helping us to find greater balance and focus for priorities. Thanks for stopping by Tim! 🙂

  12. Hey Lorraine, well not knowing the circumstances or kinds of things you’re trying to avoid it’s hard to offer specific advice but there’s always an underlying reason for avoiding something and that’s where you have to start. For example when I worked in sales the one thing most of the sales staff hated having to do was make cold calls and they would make every excuse in the book to avoid them, which inevitably would come back to haunt them at the end of the month. When something is a part of the job usually the only choices are get rid of it all together or delegate it, find a way to live with it, or change jobs. It’s trickier if it’s a personal issue – for example a family member you really (really!) don’t want to have anything to do with. You can continue to avoid them but the trade off is going to be a major case of guilt unless you can come to terms with why you’re okay with avoiding them. Whatever it is, I hope you’re able to find a way to work with or around it. 🙂

  13. Good for you Sabrina, I used to do the same thing. Helps to have a door though. 🙂

  14. I must admit I don’t experience this volume of interruptions anymore, but I’ve certainly been there / done that in the past and don’t miss it. Thanks for stopping by Meredith and keeping working on getting comfortable saying “no” – it’ll make a huge difference!

  15. Thanks for stopping by Michele, I’m so glad you enjoyed the article. 🙂

  16. Glad you like the post Beth. I learned that tip about involving the boss from firsthand experience and I found it worked very well – the key is in how you present the question. 🙂

  17. You certainly aren’t alone Emi, many people have difficulty saying no. Takes getting clear on your priorities and practice – lots and lots of practice! Thanks for stopping by! 🙂

  18. Thank you Elise! I’m so glad you found value in the article and advice and thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts.

  19. Haha! I know all too well what you mean by shiny object syndrome Diane! The other thing (for me anyway) is standing firm against the temptation to give into giving myself a “break.” For example it’s been cold and raining for days where I live and at this moment my little dog Lucy is curled up in my comforter snoring like a drunken sailor. It is SO tempting to just shut off work and go curl up with her and a good book and enjoy this weather, but got all this darn work to do! 🙂

  20. Ha! I wouldn’t worry too much Mark, I don’t experience interruptions on that level either, but that is by design and definitely one of the perks of working for yourself. 🙂

  21. Well as I’m sure you know it really boils down to priorities Monna. I would think the health of a family member would clearly take priority over most things, but even then you have to take other things into account. For example if someone tends to send up the panic flag repeatedly and it’s obvious that the point is to get attention, then it’s important to find a way to break that habit in the kindest way possible.

  22. It’s all about priorities isn’t it Suzy? Great point and thanks for stopping by! 🙂

  23. So glad you’ve found some tactics that work for you Sue. It takes practice and sticking to your priorities but it can be done. Thanks for stopping by and sharing – always appreciated! 🙂

  24. Really glad you found value in the article Miriam! I think learning to manage interruptions really is all about priorities and habits. Thanks for taking the time to contribute to the conversation. 🙂

  25. Tim

    It took me a long time to be able to say No without guilt but I think as the years went by and my time took on some more value and I didn’t necessarily want to waste it or be taken advantage of. This kind of post is always a good reminder.
    Tim recently posted…Broadening HorizonsMy Profile

  26. Marquita, it’s fine and dandy to plan for interruptions, but what about dealing with things you’d like to avoid?

    I guess it’s kind of like owning your pain, in a way, right? I mean, with all of my duties running my business, Wording Well, it’s tough to find time to just… relax and write.

    Any suggestions?
    Lorraine Reguly recently posted…Lisa Gardner’s FEAR NOTHING: An Autographed Copy + a #bookreviewMy Profile

  27. Sabrina Q.

    Great tips! When I was managing an office, I would tell my employees that I needed an hour a day to get my bearings on what needs to be done and what I need to do. Sometimes, I would even come in an hour early when I knew my day would be busy. It helped a lot. I definitely will share this one.
    Sabrina Q. recently posted…Easy Crock Pot LasagnaMy Profile

  28. Those numbers don’t surprise me one bit! That’s a lot of interruptions, which makes me feel better about why it’s so hard to get anything done. I really need to work on saying no. I also need to work on not checking my email whenever I see a new one pop up.
    Meredith Wouters recently posted…Sunny Kitchen MakeoverMy Profile

  29. I love your idea of thinking of an interruption as an offer. Gratefully, I don’t have too much trouble saying no, with very minimal explanation. I think all of your suggestions are very valuable.

  30. Beth Niebuhr

    These are really good strategies for managing interruptions. I particularly like the one about when your boss is the interruptions. Putting the responsibility right back on him or her is a great way of lettting that person decide which of the tasks you have gets to be done first.
    Beth Niebuhr recently posted…Client Attraction, How Do I Do It?My Profile

  31. Emi

    Hi Marquita,
    saying no is giving me really hard time
    and if say no I do feel so guilty that I will do some extra
    things afterwards to make up for my ‘no’
    Thank you for the great tips!
    Emi recently posted…How To Create A Clickable ImageMy Profile

  32. Dr. Elise Cohen Ho

    Oh My Goodness, I love this post. This is most especially true since I have been interrupted five times while trying to sit here and read this post.

  33. Erica says:

    I have such a hard time saying no! I really love your advice to at least stop, and take a moment to think of what the interruption will mean to you. It is easy to think of yourself as being “victim” to an interruption. You point our some great ways to take back control.
    Erica recently posted…Negative Self-Talk – How to Stop Your Mean Inner-CriticMy Profile

  34. These are really great strategies for handling interruptions. I’d never thought to approach it that way. I just try to roll with it and hope I get caught up by the end of the day! Or possibly the next day. I guess you’d call that recovery! LOL I don’t often try the can I get back to you if a friend calls. I guess I assume that they need my ear, and I’d like to be there for them. But looking at it, that may not always be the case. Great tips!
    Jacqueline Gum recently posted…Gloomy… Where’s The Justice?My Profile

  35. This is a perfect timing for my upcoming Feel Good Women’s Expo this coming weekend. I would like to share your insights to the women I will be meeting on Saturday since this is a truly significant issue for all of us. So, thank you!

    I appreciate all your tips particularly learning to say “no” and planning your interruptions. Great points!
    Mahal Hudson recently posted…Is this YOU?!My Profile

  36. Lenie

    I wish I had this list when I was still working. I used to go to work two hours earlier than what the office opened in order to get any work done. Once we opened, it seemed I was open for interruptions. Since I was working with volunteers who needed to be treated with kid-gloves much of the time it seemed the interruptions always had to be dealt with first. Could really have used this.
    Lenie recently posted…Frugal FavouritesMy Profile

  37. Hey Marquita, my favorite is the “Plan for Interruptions”

    Glad that I am my own boss so I can plan my own interruptions. 🙂
    Andrea Ansari recently posted…GO CRAZY!!! [YCDIS #3]My Profile

  38. Since I work from home- usually alone – my interruptions are often my own distractions. Chasing another “shiny object.” Your tips still fit. I need to own that I get distracted, plan my recovery when I do, actually prioritize my projects and keep focused on them so I get less distracted – and mostly learn to say NO to myself. Thanks for the reminders.
    Diane Howell Topkis recently posted…Create Your Vision BoardMy Profile

  39. Mark

    I gotta tel you M, this post frightens me just a little! Because I’m not sure if I should be happy or sad.

    I can honestly say that I don’t encounter anywhere near the daily average of 50 interruptions! Thank goodness!

    Which leads me to wonder if I’m part of the 20% that’s constantly causing them!LOL!

    In any event, I absolutely love that quote by Goethe. That really speaks volumes, doesn’t it?

    And thanks for sharing your incredibly practical strategies for diffusing potential situations that could lead to becoming distracted.

    And although it’s not the name of your post but as I was reading it and carefully digesting your material, I kept feeling like I was being given an “Effective Disruptions Too Kit” of the sorts!LOL!

    Because you’ve really laid out some simple, but wonderfully effective ways of not get sidetracked and or not being completely knocked off our mission, in the event the interruptions are simply unavoidable!

    Thank you so much M! I definitely have a much better blueprint going forward!
    Mark recently posted…Five Really Cool Reasons Why A Self Hosted WordPress Blog Beats Blowing Up On Social Media!My Profile

  40. Hi Marquita,

    It is very hard sometimes to deal with interruptions, especially when they are related to the health of a family member but we should all do the best we can and prioritize; still sometimes hard. Thanks for sharing your suggestions.
    Monna Ellithorpe recently posted…Is There Money Hidden In Your Computer?My Profile

  41. Suzie Cheel

    Learning to say no stood out for me as the one that I still have to learn to own more. This says it for me, thank you 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. xx
    Suzie Cheel recently posted…How to Make A Gratitude JarMy Profile

  42. donna merrill

    Hi Marquita,

    Sometimes I feel like I have ADHD when it comes to interruptions. It is so difficult for me to get back on track if something pops up in the middle of a task. I immediately loose concentration.

    With that being said, I have learned to say NO. It didn’t come easy for me, but I did have to do some work on myself to get there. Now, I don’t allow myself to get interrupted. If I’m writing an article, the phones are ignored, all other things around my space are quiet until I finish.

    The worst is those darn messages on Facebook. Some are needed to be answered by me, but I’ve learned even there to ignore it and then go back to my messages.

    If I give in, it leads to frustration and then I cannot be productive.
    Thanks for bringing up this topic. When you work alone, you sure need a bit of Marquita in your life to always put you at ease.

    donna merrill recently posted…Should Bloggers Give Away Their Best Information?My Profile

  43. Sue Kearney says:

    Marty, right on (once again)! I so needed to read this today. I left advertising and studio management partly because the interruptions drove me nuts. But self-employment doesn’t mean I’m protected and immune from interruptions. Everything from a friend needing some help, to a flat tire, to…. you name it.

    I’ve discovered that “Can I get back to you?” is hugely helpful. Also making sure that anyone affected by my resilient response to an interruption gets notified ASAP if there will be any delay.

    Life just keeps happening. May I meet every event with grace.

    Blessed be!
    Sue Kearney recently posted…The Full Moon in Virgo — reason meets spiritualityMy Profile

  44. Miriam Slozberg

    Oh gosh, those interruptions always get to us and get into the way. But you nailed it well. Plan for it because they will happen meaning leave extra time in your schedule, and if the interruption is not from immediate family or an important client, there is no need to have your schedule interrupted.
    Miriam Slozberg recently posted…An Overview of Success with Jaden SterlingMy Profile

  45. Well if it’s any consolation I’m in the same boat with you as far as being my own worst enemy at times. I have a tendency to get bored quickly which is really too bad since it seems all of my “projects” end up being such enormous affairs. So I elude myself into thinking I’m being smart by bouncing back and forth between tasks to keep from getting bored – but of course that also prevents me from making much progress. Working on it. 🙂 So glad you found value in the tips Dave, always value your thoughtful insights!

  46. Dave

    You know, I could probably by a lot of ice cream cones with all those dollars I’ve earned from distractions. Alas, I am distracted once again 🙂

    I am not sure if the “Author Unknown” is someone I might know, but I really love the quote about the difficulty in changing yourself and being able to change others’ behavior. That really provided a fresh perspective that allows me to focus less on what others do and more on how I choose to respond to it 🙂

    The interesting thing is that I don’t have as much problem with handling interruptions from others. It’s the self-imposed interruptions that tend to trip me up the most. And yet, these same suggestions are perfect – whether the interruptions come from the outside, or the inside 🙂

    Thanks Marty, once again – this has come at a good time since I have a few of those self-imposed interruptions (read procrastination) that have been plaguing me, and I am now ready to say “no” to them so that I can say “yes” to bigger and better things!
    Dave recently posted…Chance encounterMy Profile

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