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manage interruptions at workYou may know that I am currently gearing up for the release of my latest book, Attention Management: How to Create Success and Gain Productivity—Every Day! I asked my network about their biggest challenges to managing their attention.  I got some fantastic feedback and questions, especially regarding managing interruptions. They were the inspiration for this article.

Question: I need to manage interruptions. But what’s the best strategy for balancing an “open door policy” and the ability to be helpful to my colleagues, with the need for undistracted time to get important work done in a thoughtful way?

I get asked this a lot so I know it’s a real challenge for people. Studies show that we switch our attention an average of every few minutes. This is often due to some interruption like a new email or a co-worker wanting to speak with us. It’s hard to apply our brainpower in a meaningful way in 3 minute increments! But when we do, we get more important work done and we’re more satisfied with the results.

Get Your Distracting “Open Door Policy” Under Control

In order to find that balance, it’s first important to remember that an “open door policy” was never intended to mean “open all the time.” To manage interruptions, it needs to be more like “office hours” — clearly defined times when we are accessible to others, and other times when we are not (except in case of emergency). Communicating “please don’t interrupt me” times enables everyone to use their time most efficiently. It also creates more time for “deep work” that is typically related to our most important tasks. Progress on meaningful work is a powerful motivator, and the more we do this, the more productive and satisfied we tend to be. 

After getting your “open-door policy” under control, the next step to managing interruptions is discussed in detail in chapter 3 of Attention Management, and has to do with “controlling your environment.” Once you really “get your head into something,” all it takes is a tap on the shoulder, or someone saying your name, to make that concentration go “poof!” All that brainpower you had applied—to that problem, task, conversation, or experience—just disappears in an instant. And it can take several minutes to several hours to get it back. Think about it like pedaling a bike. It takes some effort to get started. Imagine if every time you just got up some momentum to start cruising along, you had to hit the brakes. It would take you a lot more time and effort to get to your destination than if you could just ride that momentum for much of the way.

Recognize Habits of Distraction That Don’t Serve You

So here’s your challenge to better manage interruptions, and start regaining some balance between “thoughtful work time” and being available to your colleagues:

  1. Consider how much of your job requires independent work, and how much of it requires you to be available to others. For example, if you are in Human Resources, part of your job is responding to staff issues. But you probably also have other responsibilities that require sustained attention, like creating the compensation or staff development plans and writing reports to present to senior leadership. Make a note of the percentage split (such as, “40% of my job responsibilities requires independent work, and 60% requires me to work collaboratively or be available to others”). It doesn’t have to be precise, just the answer you come up with in a minute or two of thought.
  2. Consider how you might organize you days and exert some control over your environment, even in an open office setting, to incorporate an open (and closed) door policy. Is there some way you can alert your colleagues that you need some quiet time, so they can know that before they stop in and ask, “Hey, got a minute?”

Attention Management book by Maura ThomasThis exercise might lead you to some changes in your behavior, and that’s great. But don’t feel like you have to fully commit to any specific action yet. Just let these ideas “percolate” in your brain for a while. This is helpful because if you’re like most of my clients, allowing constant interruptions is probably a habit you’ve formed out of necessity. And it’s hard to break a habit you don’t realize you have. If you take the two steps above, they will help you to become more aware of this habit of distraction.  Then you’ll be ready for the step-by-step action plan in the book when it comes out.

In the meantime, If you want to learn more about Attention Management, click here! If you’d like to be a part of my network and learn when I have published new content on productivity, attention management, and work-life balance, click here.