After Hours

10 ways to reduce interruptions and stay focused at work

Interruptions are a fact of life, but they don't have to derail your work. These practical suggestions will help you maintain control of your day.

While on a recent vacation, my wife pointed out an interesting paragraph in a book she was reading: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, by Susan Cain. The paragraph referenced a study ("Coding War Games") conducted upon programmers which found that experience, compensation, and time spent working on a project were less relevant to quality performance than privacy and freedom from interruptions.

Let's think about that a moment. The ability to concentrate was more significant than how much these programmers knew, how much they were paid, or how much time they invested in the work.

My wife brought this up to me since she knows how I feel about interruptions. They seem to have gotten more frequent in business, due to increased workloads and urgent issues -- or perhaps they're a symptom of the instant-gratification society in which we live. It's not just faceless coworkers who may be responsible for interruptions; they can also come from esteemed colleagues and friends, making the issue more complicated and trickier to handle.

My primary job involves system administration, where much of the day's work involves technical emergencies and break-fix tasks for users. However, interruptions aren't restricted solely to the IT realm. Any industry where multiple priorities can conflict and overwhelm staff will see its share of "quick questions" and "drive-by visits." The damage inflicted by interruptions is well known; I've seen statistics indicating office workers are interrupted every three minutes. This kills productivity, raises stress levels, and can damage health or working relationships if left unchecked. The employee being interrupted may feel it's impossible to get anything done with such an unmanageable workload. Conversely, his/her customers may be dissatisfied with the service received -- or lack thereof -- thereby adversely affecting all involved parties.

Some interruptions are valid: The CEO who can't get his laptop hooked up to the projector in the auditorium 10 minutes before a company meeting takes precedence over the dead monitor you're packing up to ship out for recycling. However, many things people want you to do right away can't be done since you're already committed to an equally critical task. Sometimes there just isn't enough time in the day to get everything done when you factor in the planned work, projects, and "drop everything now" requests.

In response to this growing problem, I have put together a list of 10 ways to help handle interruptions and retain control of your day. I hope this list will be useful for all who seek to keep their workday on course. I want to stress that the goal here isn't to avoid work -- an interruption shouldn't be seen as some other task you have to try to get out of, like Harry Houdini in a milk can -- but rather to plan the work as effectively as possible.

1: Use an official ticketing/request system

One of my favorite sayings is "You can't manage what you can't measure." If you work in a field that services the requests of other people, you need to have a dedicated system, process, or procedure to receive and track those requests. Whether it's a commercial product like Zendesk Help Desk Software or Solarwinds Web Help Desk, a free package like Spiceworks, or even just a dedicated mailbox/phone line for employees to ask for assistance, this is your top priority.

It's not enough to set up a request process. You have to document it and ensure that everyone is trained on how to use the system (don't forget new hires). Furthermore, you have to reinforce it - and this is where technology alone won't suffice. You will need to refuse verbal requests or visits from other employees who try to skip using the system or otherwise "jump the line." These requests can and will happen throughout your office -- in the kitchen, the hallways, even the bathrooms. If you don't stick to the mantra of "please open a ticket" or "please email the request," your system is meaningless. Therefore, you may have to develop a thick skin and help others develop the appropriate habits.

Note: that this is why I don't recommend working at your desk with headphones on (or putting up a "Do Not Disturb" sign) to try to discourage people from interrupting you. You can't stay at your desk forever, and shutting out society isn't the best way to manage your priorities.

2: Know your schedule

So you have a ticketing system up and running and employees know how to ask for help. Should be easy to plan out your day, right? Well, not so fast. You're telling people to open a ticket for assistance, which they may hear as, "As soon as we get your request, we'll immediately resolve your problem." That works fine if Joe is the first one to ask for help on a quiet Thursday afternoon. It doesn't mean much if Joe is in the queue behind Tim, Sue, Bill, George, Jacob, Leslie, and Ricardo on a busy Tuesday. People will seek you out. When they arrive to find you in the middle of something you can't (or shouldn't) drop, you will need to let them know when you can help them. For this reason, you should study your schedule every morning and know your open time slots.

Use scheduled meetings to help lay out your work, so if someone wants you to help them right away you can say, "I'm tied up now, but I can help you at 11 AM." That works much better than a vague "Maybe later" or "I'll let you know when I'm free." You can also ask employees to send you the meeting request, and it will help further pave the way toward using technology for these tasks. After all, that's what it's there for, isn't it?

3: Be firm and friendly and make eye contact with visitors

Deferring users to the open slots in your schedule will work for many of them. The rest, frankly, will shake their heads and say, "No, this will only take you a moment" and persist in trying to persuade you to comply with their request. This isn't a personality critique or a pessimistic warning, but an honest fact of life. As I stated above, there are times that it may be valid for you to drop what you're doing, but there are also times when that demand can turn into a contest of wills.

If you come across as wishy-washy or you mumble or look embarrassed, you may find yourself dragged into an interruption against your will, provoking resentment and frustration. I have found that being firm and friendly and keeping eye contact with visitors helps tremendously. It builds rapport and assures the user you're not grouchy or anti-social, and that you understand the urgency of their request.

4: Reference what you're already doing

It may also help stave off an interruption if you give a brief description of what you're currently working on. No need to provide too much detail, but, "I'm recovering some lost files for Tom, who needs these right away" is much more effective than "I'm too busy right now" or "You're going to have to wait." This helps your visitor see that other people are in line as well and have similarly crucial needs; you're not just on Facebook complaining about your tough day. If this isn't sufficient, you'll have to resort to saying "No," but do so politely and without fuss.

5: Relocate to quieter pastures

As with wearing headphones at your desk, I don't believe working remotely is a 100% cure for interruptions. For one thing, it puts you at a severe disadvantage if you have to hibernate elsewhere to get anything done. For another thing, you can still be reached via other means -- such as your mobile phone. You need to be able to do your job in your workspace; it shouldn't be a place you have to escape to get some peace of mind.

That being said, if your desk is a magnet for interruptions, it might make sense to relocate the action in a more strategic fashion. If you have a 10 AM with Chuck to work on a task, go see Chuck in his cube rather than having him come over. Book a conference room for discussions so that you'll be ensured privacy and continuity. If you're working on a server problem, do so in the server room. If you're performing research, perform it in the lab. The goal should be to keep moving about to make sure you can finish what you start in the appropriate context. You're doing it on your terms, not fleeing based on someone else's.

6: Structure your day

I know very few IT professionals who spend any part of their day just sitting around hoping for something to do. Most of us could easily group our workload into "things we must do now," "things we should do now," "things we'll have to do at some point," and "things we could do on a rainy day." If you know your company's busy periods, your coworkers' habits, and your own strengths (and weaknesses), you can organize your day so that interruptions have less of an impact.

For instance, if it's dead between 3 and 5 PM on Friday afternoons, that's a perfect time to perform that server upgrade without much risk of having to stop in the middle to respond to another situation. If it's chaotic at 9 AM Monday, you could designate the first two hours of the day to handling emergencies so you're prepared to multitask and rush about. If you're always sleepy after lunch, try to walk around and work on scheduled requests then, rather than nodding off at your desk. This is a well-known productivity tip, but it also applies to single-tasking (which is what any work free from interruptions should entail).

7: Keep up on your communication

One of the leading reasons coworkers may approach you is to find out if you've received their email/voicemail/instant message. (This is a code phrase for "Are you working on my request yet?" I have found that responding to these as soon as possible -- even with, "Busy now; send me a meeting request for 10:30 AM" -- works wonders. It keeps employees informed and in the loop and reduces the chance they'll have to resort to a face-to-face visit to get a status update (on what should be an official ticket/request, of course). Do the same for work in progress so that there's no black hole between you and the customer.

The trick here is not to hover over your Inbox obsessively trying to bat aside emails that might result in an interruption. Obviously, you can't perform other tasks very well if you're constantly responding to the "ding" of a new email. I recommend scheduled checks of email (say every 15 or 30 minutes, depending on the intensity of your work). Voice mails and instant messages will announce themselves more persistently, of course. Find the balance so you're not playing whack-a-mole or needlessly shifting gears.

8: Train a partner

When you tell Ted you can't stop what you're doing and attend to his task, I can almost guarantee you that his first response will be "Well then, who else can?"  If you're an IT shop of one, or a specialist on your team, you may find yourself being forced to sheepishly reply, "Nobody -- it's just me." That doesn't help matters much and may in fact intensify the threat of interruption since now you're a prized commodity.

If possible, train a partner beforehand so you'll have another resource available. I realize this may not be feasible. If you're THE guy or girl who knows Exchange 2010, a mailbox database failure will reel you in no matter what. But that also means you're THE guy or girl who doesn't get a vacation. It's not job security when you're the only one who knows how to do something; it's job slavery. It does neither you nor the company any good to be the only one who understands how something works, so try to find someone you can mentor to share the knowledge with. Do this while it's quiet, so that when things get crazy your partner can stand in for you and assist.

9: Overestimate the time you'll need

While you're budgeting time for your workday, take Murphy's Law into account. Fresh-faced, eager young college grads might excitedly proclaim they can build 10 virtual machines between breakfast and lunch, but seasoned pros know it takes more than just multiplying a half hour estimate by 10 and then happily announcing that everything will go just fine. You'll run into OS problems, storage space issues, bizarre networking anomalies, and misbehaving applications. You'll get disoriented, need a break, or have to double-check your work. And when the task is still half-done and you have to stop that to go do something else, you'll find that your day has turned into a pile of rubber balls hurled into the air, whereby you're now forced to hop around trying to catch each one.

I'm not saying just blindly double how much time you think you'll need for a task. Nor should you pigeonhole yourself as the person who always says "X" will take three hours when it really takes one hour; this will generate suspicion and lack of trust. Each project is different, and the variables involved can make it difficult to adequately estimate the time it will take. Experience will be necessary and trial and error guaranteed. But if you have four chores you MUST do today and the first one is dragging on too long, chances are you'll find yourself being pulled in the direction of the other three if there are human stakeholders involved. It's demoralizing to have to keep pushing work off to another day or rescheduling meetings.

10: Get manager buy-in

Manager support is the most critical element of all these tips, and the reason I included it at the end is that it must cover the first nine. Without manager agreement on these strategies (not just your manager but others in the organization), your plan has no wheels. Furthermore, your manager needs to be prepared to go to bat for you when the times get rough and you've been turned into a rope in a game of tug of war. Whether its reassigning work to balance the load, pushing back against other managers who want to reorder your priorities, or calmly dealing with complaints from customers who felt you didn't quickly address their needs, your manager must be on your side. Your manager might also be able to arrange for more staff to be hired to relieve you or urge training for users where necessary.

What if you don't have manager support? What if your boss allows anyone who comes along to seize your focus and hijack your day? Don't be afraid to take it to HR. They are there to handle employee relations, and you shouldn't fret about "tattling" or "being disloyal." Even if that's how you are perceived, it's still better than being in the middle of a situation without support from the individual to whom you report.

Conclusion

Interruptions will probably always be a way of life to some extent. This society moves too fast to let any moss grow, and pressure can come from all directions. These tips are based upon anticipating the pressure and finding ways to redirect it in more meaningful directions so you can maintain control of your work. It's critical to stay focused, not just for your own priorities but for those of the company as well.

It's good that people are competing for your attention (this makes you an asset). But it's important to remember that you can do only one thing at a time.  Other solutions for reducing distractions (both external and internal) include exercise, meditation, and proper rest. Stay up to date on changes in your field so you're not stumbling over new developments. Last but not least, don't forget to engage in healthy socialization with your coworkers, so they can see you as a fellow person and not a task-juggling automaton!

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About

Scott Matteson is a senior systems administrator and freelance technical writer who also performs consulting work for small organizations. He resides in the Greater Boston area with his wife and three children.

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