Broken clock
I know a woman who's an incurable optimist: She shows up for work actually believing she'll get through her to-do list. Slipping into her desk chair, she decides to check her e-mail before diving into the presentation she has to write, and whoosh…she's sucked into a ton of annoying little requests. She sends brief answers and 40 minutes later gets started on her presentation. Just as inspiration starts to flow, the phone rings.

Most of us spend our days in environments that make us feel scattered. If you're an office worker, you're interrupted every three minutes on average, according to researchers at the School of Information and Computer Science at UC-Irvine. A related study showed that it can take 25 minutes to regain your concentration after each interruption, which means that brilliant train of thought you were riding might get permanently derailed.

Caught off guard, we drop everything to solve problems other people not only could but should handle. One quick question leads to another and another, and soon the day is shot.
Why Can't You Just Say No?
Most people claim they give in to sudden requests because they hate letting others down. I say it's more about not disappointing ourselves: We're hooked on feeling needed. If we take a hard look at ourselves, we might see that we unwittingly encourage people to come to us for every little thing. Interruptions can also be a welcome distraction. Faced with an unpleasant task, we're more than happy to turn our attention elsewhere. Finally, we often don't say no because of simple disorganization. In a choppy and shapeless day, we handle disruption immediately because we figure, if not now, when?

While it's important to be reasonably accessible to the people you live and work with, you don't want to spend most of your waking hours in helper mode at the expense of completing your own critical tasks. Even if you're in crisis management or, for that matter, if you're a stay-at-home mom, you need to prioritize requests. Otherwise you get trapped in a whirlwind of multitasking where you start many things and finish nothing.
Keep a Log
The first step in taking back control is to know exactly what you're up against. Track yourself for a week. For each interruption, note the time and the way it came about (via e-mail, telephone, or drop-by visitor). Include the interruptions you visited on yourself with incessant checking of e-mail, walks to the watercooler, and klatching with friends. Write down how long you spent on each, and grade it: A = critical and urgent; B = important, not urgent; C = unnecessary.

Add up the total minutes spent on A-level interruptions, and divide by five to get your daily average. That's the amount of time each day you must leave open for the inevitable crises that must be handled immediately.

You'll likely have two or three people who can break in anytime (your boss, one or two key colleagues, and perhaps your spouse or child). Postpone dealing with as many of the others as you can. Many issues are important (B level), but, as you'll see from your log, they can wait. The delay has a payoff: It allows you to prepare to respond in a more focused, efficient way.
Get Rid of Pesky Distractions
Some interruptions are simply a waste of time, so your next step is to cut way down on them:

  • Rearrange your space. If your office feels like Grand Central, make it less inviting. Close your door just enough to avoid eye contact with people passing by. In a cubicle, move your chair or position a plant for a blocking effect.
  • Break the e-addiction. Turn off your e-mail alert, and let voice mail pick up when you really need to concentrate. I highly recommend the radical concept of not checking e-mail for the first hour of the day. Instead, spend that time on your most imperative task. The sense of accomplishment you feel from knocking off that big to-do fuels you with energy all day long and lets you meet the demands of others less resentfully.
  • If you're supervising people, empower them to make decisions so you're not constantly inundated with tiny questions and concerns. Be clear on the destination, but let people be creative on the path. Tell subordinates exactly which decisions they can make without you. If someone comes to you with a problem she could handle on her own, turn it back around. ("Can you make that call? I won't be able to get to it for two days" or "Come up with a few solutions, then let's meet.")
Put Disruptions on Your Own Timetable
Third, although it might sound like an oxymoron, you can schedule interruptions:

  • Establish several "open" times throughout the day when anyone can stop by—at your convenience. Try alternating one hour closed door, one hour open. In most situations, people are fine with waiting as long as they know when they will be heard.
  • Begin the conversation with "What can I do for you?" rather than "How are you?" The latter is an invitation to chat. You want to get straight to the point.
  • Ask how long each person will need. Fifteen minutes? A half hour? You can choose between setting up the meeting for later or saying something like, "Let's talk now; I've got a conference call in 20 minutes." This approach forces people to stick to the amount of time they've requested.
  • Rehearse a few comfortable exit lines in case someone gets you at a bad moment. For example, "I'm in the middle of finishing a project; can we talk this afternoon?" or "I'd love to help you out, but this week is impossible."
  • Even for people whose interruptions you take anytime, there's no offense in asking when they need the request filled. Within the hour? The day? You'll be surprised how often there's no rush.
Recover Quickly

Whenever you stop in the middle of completing a task, take a moment to jot down exactly what you'd planned to do next and how long it will take. For example, "Write closing paragraph: 30 minutes." If you're working on a document, put a bright-colored Post-it on the exact spot where you left off. This will make it easier to get reoriented.

Finally, don't respond to any interruption without first asking yourself the million dollar questions: Whom will you let down by saying yes? Did you also make a promise to someone else? Whose disappointed face can you tolerate least—the person's in front of you or your boss's?


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