Three Secrets to Managing Interruptions With Less Stress for Everyone

1.  Define your “interrupt hierarchy” and discuss it with your colleagues. If you are meeting with a colleague and your smartphone buzzes, your desk phone rings, and someone knocks at the door, what do you do? Do you answer the call on your smartphone while letting your desk phone go to voicemail, then answer the questions from the person at your door, and then come back to your meeting with your colleague? Or do you tell the person at your door to come back in a half hour, let all your phones go to voicemail and continue with your conversation with your colleague? How do you factor in the caller ID information or who is at your door?

The way you prioritize these multiple simultaneous demands for your attention defines your interrupt hierarchy. Choose an interrupt hierarchy that minimizes the distractions from your highest priority tasks. Let your colleagues know what to expect from you when there are interruptions and why. Then learn the interrupt hierarchies of your colleagues and the logic behind them. How you handle interruptions sends powerful signals about “who and what is important,” so make sure the signals are what you intend.       

2. Schedule the “predictable interruptions” to minimize conflicting demands. If you are in the office and your children need to check in with you when they get home from school each day, set a time for it on your calendar and schedule around it. Then savor those 10 or 15 minutes talking to your kids. If it’s important, put it on your calendar. 

Photo Credit: Ernst Vikne via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Ernst Vikne via Compfight cc

If you depend on a colleague to help you coordinate your work, set a few short times during the day when you can count on talking to each other so you can work together well but don’t have to constantly interrupt each other.

If you are tired of having your dinner interrupted by phone calls from fundraisers, develop an annual schedule for all your charitable giving and make the donations electronically at your convenience. Stop answering those calls and put those pesky fundraising letters that come in the mail directly into the shredder. You will have a more satisfying experience of philanthropy and a lot less aggravation.

3. Don’t keep more balls in the air than you can catch when they all fall. Multitasking, in the sense of doing multiple tasks simultaneously, is largely a myth. The rapid switching between multiple tasks that masquerades as multitasking in humans is tremendously error prone and reduces overall effectiveness. Texting while driving? Are we crazy? Nonetheless, all of us face situations where we need to keep more than one ball in the air at a time. I urge you to learn to juggle. Really, get three tennis balls and learn how to juggle.

One thing you will learn once you start juggling is that you also have to learn how to stop juggling and catch all three balls before they hit the floor. Going from juggling three tennis balls to five or six is an order of magnitude shift. Leave that to the circus performers. A good strategy at work, if possible, is to juggle no more than three important tasks at a time and hedge your risks by making sure you can “catch them all” when you have to stop juggling suddenly.

What are your strategies for managing interruptions?


2 responses to “Three Secrets to Managing Interruptions With Less Stress for Everyone”

  1. Interruptions! A topic dear to my heart because it is about balance and your effectiveness depends on how well you juggle.

    beyond the strategies presented here – there is really no substitute to finding a quiet time for your important work if it requires your undivided attention. Close your door or work from home with the buzzer off.

  2. I totally agree that signals are so important. One thing that annoys me is when making a purchase, if the person taking my money interrupts the transaction to take a phone call. In my my mind, the live person in front of you should have priority over the “birds in the bush” that are calling. How someone handles this situation will determine my level of customer satisfaction.