7 “Snappy” Strategies to Take Control of Office Interruptions

“I will schedule non-critical interruptions.”


Read and repeat the above statement (aloud if possible, like you’re taking an oath).


“Hey wait a minute,” you’re thinking,


“you can't SCHEDULE interruptions, that’s counter to the definition of an interruption!” 


You’re absolutely correct, you’re never going to control someone’s desire to interrupt you from a critical task without a taser or stun gun, you’d have to somehow detect interrupters as they approach your premises and then get to them before they get to you…motion sensor, perhaps?  


Well, if you don’t want to go through the expense of upgrading your cubicle with defense technology (not to mention it’s probably NOT legal to taze people in the office or even possible to do this through the phone), you’ll probably have to settle on a suitable alternative:


Developing the ability to set effective boundaries.


Setting boundaries isn’t one of those topics that’s readily discussed in the productivity space and I’m not sure why.  Perhaps it’s because we’re more focused on the expediency of human interactions, maybe even the tools and technology that foster efficiency for communication, rather than on the interpersonal relationship itself.


Nevertheless, establishing healthy boundaries and personal policies in and around boundaries is one of the most productive practices productivity enthusiasts can participate in each and every day.


Bringing it Back to Purpose

If you’ve been following, you may be aware that I recently completed a six-week rampage via 5-part blog series against email abuse and wasteful email practices.  The large majority of the content built around my series on email is rooted in developing the skills and habits required for setting healthy email boundaries. 


Any wasteful email, in and of itself, is just an electronic interruption.


This week, I’d like to offer some perspective on transferring those same skills to in-person interruptions.


The concept of finding purpose and seeking clarity on our vision has been our topic-of-the-month for March on The Make it Snappy Productivity Show podcast.  We’ve been diving into the concept of using productivity as a tool to move closer towards our purpose-driven business and/or careers. 


We’ve emphasized how important it is to move our proverbial needle forward, each and every day as it relates to the things we do that contribute to our purpose, or our vision.


As such, if we’re only able to carve out a small fraction of time each day to create purpose in our work, or to work on our MOST important task of the day, and we continuously experience interruptions by people who do not respect our time and/or privacy, over the course of time it can have detrimental effects on our psyche, and our ability to find meaning in the work we do each day. 


For this reason I’m passionate about mitigating the risk of office and phone interruptions because I’m passionate about helping people work more productively towards their purpose.


Allow me to offer a few strategies for setting boundaries in the various settings we may work in each day:


Leaders Must Lead by Example

When you’re at your office desk, expect to be interrupted.  If you’re a manager responsible for a team of professionals, an “open door” policy is an invitation to stagnation.

"An  open door  policy is an invitation to stagnation"

"An open door policy is an invitation to stagnation"


What I mean is, yes, certainly you’re goal is to be approachable and easy to work with.  Yet, as a leader, it’s imperative for you to set a good example for effective office practices.


Random office interruptions don’t work for anyone.  


If subordinates are running into problems and they need your immediate assistance, you have fostered a reactive, rather than proactive office culture.  The team isn’t making important decisions on their own, they haven’t taken ownership of their work. 


Guidance is one thing, but interruptions because of an emergency points to the need for process change.


If this is where you’re at, you and your team are not working to your full potential; you’re stagnant.  


There’s hope though!


It’s going to require rolling up some sleeves and digging in, but you can start by implementing processes to mitigate interruptions like those outlined herein.  It’s about being transparent - you’re team will understand and be much more willing to change behaviors if you explain the reasons for why you do the things you do.


There are strategies for dealing with desk interruptions and setting boundaries over time, but for now, if you don’t want to be interrupted and you work in an office, close the door and post a “please do not disturb” sign.


#1 Close the Dang Door

If you work in an office and you have a door, it’s easy to work interruption-free: just close the door.


The act of closing an office door gives the impression that the person behind the door is working on something important and would prefer NOT to be interrupted.  


Yet, unfortunately, if you’re not a leader and you’re Supervisor is in the office it can give the impression that you’re goofing off or sleeping.


Oh yeah, people like to knock, don’t they?


Ok, if you want to show your team, your boss, or any random invaders a little grace, post the time you expect to have your critical task wrapped up, and add “please do not disturb until after…11AM, 2PM, etc.” 


This gives your invader/interrupter a sense although what you’re currently working on is very important, you still care about what they have to say, so you’re gonna make time for them later. 


It also holds your feet to the fire for getting your critical task done for the day.  Once you’ve accomplished what you’ve set out to complete for the day and you want to setup pre-planned “office hours,” go ahead and keep the door open.  


This will give your team a set time to seek your guidance, in lieu of your immediate decision.  There’s a huge difference; one empowers, the other directs.


#2 - Escape the Cube

If you work in a cubicle, the situation is a bit more complicated, I’ve been there. 


“Do not disturb” signs hung up in cubicles typically get ignored or laughed at.  As such, if you really need to bang out your most important task of the day, and you have a little office flexibility, find a conference room (with a door) or use someone else’s office.


Another option is to work from home for the first hour of your day and complete your needle-moving, most important task-of-the-day before reporting to your desk - that’s the easiest option, pending you don’t have small children interrupting you at the house.  If so, coffee shops are a great alternative.


If you like the idea of hiding in a conference room (my personal favorite strategy, by the way); it helps to check in, or catch your boss’s eye so she knows you’re in the office and not slacking off. 


This way, you’re less likely to get flack when you arrive at your desk later than most. 


Even so, honesty is always the best policy.


As such, "away-from-desk” time may need to be negotiated before you implement the strategy, especially for those old-school-type offices. 


We can talk about negotiation strategies in another blog article, but until then just know that the earlier in your relationship with your supervisor the better opportunity there is to negotiate.  Don’t wait on this - as discussed earlier, set your boundaries as soon as possible; be clear with him or her about the conditions in which you produce your most effective work for the team and those where you struggle.



#3 - Get Up

If cubicle escape plans don’t work, and working from home isn’t an option, consider becoming an early riser.


To minimize the risk of cubicle interruptions during the times you’re working on your MOST important task of the day, arrive at your desk an hour before most of the office does, expect of course for that weirdo who gets there at 5AM every day. 


If you’re at home, get it done before the kiddos wake up.  I typically wake up between 5-5:30AM (in most cases, naturally) because I’ve set bedtime goals to hit the pillow by 9:30PM each night.  You say you’re not an early riser, I get that, me neither…until I started going to bed early.


#4 - Create a Disguise

When you’re in your cubicle, wear headphones or a phone headset.  People will tend to keep moving if they see you on the phone.  If they do stop, you can either pretend to tell someone to “hold on,” or keep a piece of paper handy that says, “tied up until 11AM” or whatever time you’re tied up till, and show them sign, silently.  


#5 - Leverage Voicemail

Let mobile or office phones go to voicemail.  If a voicemail is left, check it immediately and determine if it’s urgent.  If it’s non-critical, add the voicemail to your >2M task list and return the call within 2-4 hours.


#6 - Set a Deadline

 If someone relentlessly insists on interrupting you during your critical time, and you’ve attempted the tactics outlined above, tell them up-front you only have two minutes to talk.


Quickly find out what they need and when they need it.  Have them commit to your two-minute deadline - don’t leave anything open. 


#7 - Reschedule the Interruption

If there’s a lot of background info and you judge it to be impossible to meet the 2-minute deadline, reschedule the interruption on the spot - when are you willing to give the invader your time?  


The conversation could go something like, “Jim, I see that you’re excited about this issue and you have a lot of information.  I owe you my full attention on this matter and due to my pressing deadlines, I just can’t give it to you at this moment.  How about we reschedule?  I have an open window from 3:15-3:30PM this afternoon, let’s hammer this out at that time.  Does that sound reasonable?” 


I recommend defaulting to 15-minutes.  It will force your invader to be concise and prepared in advance.  Set a fixed meeting time then and there with the invader, and agree upon the duration.  If you ask, “does that sound reasonable?” more often than not, the person won’t argue that you’re being UNreasonable.


Get it on your calendar, and reschedule your day accordingly so nothing falls through the cracks.



Next Steps on Interruptions...

Which one of these strategies do you like the most?  Which won’t work in your office?


Let me know why or why not by leaving a comment below; I’d love to hear from you and develop a strategy that does work for you.