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Short Interruptions Lead to Long Delays—Avoid Them with Time Management Tricks

by Steven Nichols on October 10, 2011

Do you have a second?  Can I steal you for a moment?  Ring!  It doesn’t take much to break someone’s concentration, and restoring it can take longer than the interruption itself.

Some interruptions are important and welcome.  Everyone needs an occasional mental break, and avoiding all office small talk is bad for morale and cohesiveness. A fire alarm, or metaphorical one, also needs to be heard.

Most interruptions however, could be more efficiently addressed with better management and clearer expectations.  Here are three time management tips for side-stepping distractions and minimizing their effect while being available for true emergencies:

Better communication

Doesn’t he know I’m too busy for this?

Maybe not.  Maybe your coworker doesn’t realize that your deadlines are looming, your clients are on your back, and your stressball has burst.

Clearly and accurately communicating your tight schedule to the rest of the office may head off distractions before they become a problem.  Carefully, tactfully, respectfully mention in the weekly meeting that you’ll only be available for small talk after hours for the next week (and that you might be sleeping at your desk during that time).

Don’t let your computer distract you

Turn off your desktop email alert.  That’s the notification in the bottom right-hand corner of your screen with the sender’s name and the subject line.  Five minutes reading an email, five minutes responding, and five minutes getting back to the same level of deep concentration add up to 15 minutes of inefficient time.  This can multiply quickly.

Don’t let text messages or personal email distract you either.  Completely avoiding personal tasks during the day isn’t realistic, especially as the hours get longer, but by setting aside a chunk of time for personal calls, it won’t interrupt your train of thought at an inopportune time.

Recognize an interruption and handle it with ease

When your coworker walks in with a useful question (or a less than useful anecdote), take these three time management steps:

  1. Mark your place. Before you forget, write a quick note to yourself about what you were doing.  Finding your way back to your peak of concentration is easier with a map;
  2. Decide if the interruption is an emergency, an opportunity for rapport-building, a good topic for some other time, or a waste of time;
  3. Decide to allow the distraction, ask if you can put it off, or tactfully end the conversation.

A gentle way to end the conversation is to stand up.  A less gentle way is to stare at your computer screen. The least gentle way is to pretend you have a cell phone call from the President.

If the pressure is especially intense or the work especially complex, close your door, put your phone on “Do Not Disturb,” and ask your coworkers to give you some space.  You may even want to arrange for flex time on a weekend.  Saturday morning can be the most productive time of the week.

Steven Nichols works with Mission Critical Systems, a Denver Training Company, offering classes in Time Management and Microsoft Office.  Please contact him with questions at (303) 383-1627 x 1104.

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