How to kill interruptions and prevent new ones from hatching

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Unless we seriously have nothing to do, introverts hate interruptions when they’re trying to work. Interruptions not only temporarily take us away from the task we’re trying to complete, they destroy our concentration and may set us back hours trying to get back to where we left off. Some interruptions are important, such as when our boss comes and says, “We need to talk.” Others, such as the guy who’s walking around looking for someone to talk to about nothing, should be prevented from ever making even a ripple in our focused attention to our work.

I used to think I had to be receptive to all interruptions, because I’m in IT and everyone else is my “customer,” but really I owe it to the company and to myself to concentrate and get my work done. What would it be like if you went to the dentist and he kept getting called away because someone had dropped by with “a quick question” or he had to answer his phone? You’d hate that, because it would take him three times as long to finish what he’s doing to you. And you also know that you can’t just drop by or call and interrupt him at will. He values his time to do his tasks. Likewise you and your task deserve respect too. We can’t afford to be unpleasant to coworkers, but we do teach people how to treat us, so we need to remember that our time is important too.

How can we avoid some interruptions entirely?

For the phone or email, we can simply ignore or even disconnect those things for a while. I do like to respond to email pretty quickly to avoid having it escalate to a phone call or deskside visit, but if I’m trying to get something done I’ll get it done fastest if I concentrate on that one thing and do it.

For in person interruptions, people are a lot less likely to start talking to you if you are on the phone, busily typing something and staring intently at your screen, or at least frowning to yourself a bit as you look at what you’re reading. Sometimes I’ll hear a known interruptor coming and actually pick up my phone for a quick fake call until he has passed by. I remember when my desk was in a cubicle area with other IT folks – everyone in the suite would come to tell us in person if they had the vaguest problem with anything that plugged in to the wall. “Jerry can’t print.” “My invoices won’t run..” I’d always look up as I heard an interruptor coming, thinking that it would all be over faster if I just met him head on and took care of the problem. But the guy who sat across from me started keeping his back turned to the opening of his cube and not turning around unless someone called his name specifically. Guess who almost never got interrupted?

We can’t sit and just do our work and refuse to look up when someone approaches and starts talking, but I have found that interruptions are a lot fewer and faster if I deliberately wait a few seconds before looking up. In other words, if you let someone catch your eye, they have your attention and the interruption has already occurred. Think about it – if you had to go tell a VP at your company something, when would you be most likely to go barging into his office? If he looks at you as you approach. If he doesn’t look up, is on the phone, or is otherwise obviously busy, I think I’d go back to my desk and email him!

How can we cut interruptions short?

To shorten an interruption, try to keep the person on the topic they came to ask you about. If they start off on a tangent, don’t ask them a question about the new subject or pursue the side conversation, even if it feels like that is expected. Politely determine what the person needs, then you can either take care of it or tell them that you have a deadline or other reason, and tell them what time you expect to address their issue.

If they just don’t seem to get it, go ahead and stand up, gathering your pen and notebook, as if you are about to go to another meeting. So what if that meeting is with the water fountain at the end of the hall? Don’t get angry or show your impatience (this is the hardest part for me) – just do this in a professional and pleasant manner and the hope is that they’ll thank you and walk away without even thinking about it.

I’ve always had a guest chair by my desk, but after many, many times of having a visitor who won’t leave, these days I have finally learned to put the guest chair almost out of sight or maybe even have some books or other things on it. The smart guy who kept his back to the room when we were in cubicles? When he was told he could get a guest chair to go with his new desk, he told the boss, “A guest chair sends the wrong message.” ;) I’m learning!

Photo credit: lanuiop

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21 Comments

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention How to kill interruptions and prevent new ones from hatching — Introvert Zone -- Topsy.com

  2. Great post, thank you for the helpful ideas! Even if I “seriously have nothing to do,” I still hate interruptions, because I’m usually very content to be thinking or just zoning. But if I’m trying to get work done, I REALLY hate interruptions. Work-related interruptions really can’t be avoided, but I think we have every right to put a stop to non-work-related ones.

    I have never understood why my need to concentrate and focus on my work has to be less important than some bored extrovert’s desire to talk to me. I’ve always thought I had to be receptive to all interruptions, as a “nice person,” but I’m finally realizing that the interrupters aren’t being “nice people” when they refuse to respect what I’m trying to do, so I’m becoming a lot more assertive about saying, basically, “Please go away.”

    I just rearranged my cubicle with a higher wall and I’ve positioned my main monitor so that my back is to the ‘door’ – it’s much less open and inviting than it was and I think it’s going to cut down on the unwanted “cubicle visits” considerably.

    Not showing impatience is important for several reasons, one of which, in my environment, is that if you show you’re irritated or impatient, people will simply escalate their efforts to “get your goat.” It’s childish and ridiculous but that’s what happens. They seem to think it’s cute and funny when I get ticked off at the constant socializing. Nobody takes me seriously when I try to tell them that really, I have work to do and they need to take their conversation somewhere else. Management is no help, I learned that a long time ago. It’s MY problem to solve.

    Even if I’m really busy, I will usually accommodate a WORK related interruption, especially if it’s presented with just a little respect and consideration, ie. “Excuse me, I know you’re busy, but I really need your help for just a minute.” Fine. I understand that. Likewise, I expect to be understood if now and then my response has to be “I’m really sorry but I can’t help you right now. I’ll be free in about a half hour, or if you really need this now, perhaps you could ask Greg.” It’s got to go both ways. I’ve reached a point where I no longer feel the need to be “nice” to the rude. If people want my help at work they have GOT to start showing me a little more respect, or they are going to find that I’ve mysteriously “forgotten” just about everything I know, and have become useless as a source of assistance!! :-)
    .-= hermit loner´s last blog ..A Little Privacy, A Lot of Happy =-.

    • Thanks Hermit Loner! And you’re absolutely right – your right to think and work has to be just as (well, really MORE) important as someone else’s right to just come interrupt you because he wants to talk!

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  4. Good one with the guest char sending the wrong message – I like it :D

    I found that wearing headphones (and listening to music of course) would also decrease interruptions, but then people found out that I wore them all the time and started interrupting me anyway. So now I only put them on if really necessary and people seem to respect it more often.

    And also the thing about waiting a few seconds to reply or even look up might also give the other guy an indication that he actually disturbed you and he might think twice before doing it again
    .-= Klaus @ TechPatio´s last blog ..Friday Flick Find: Windows 7 Launch Party & Parody =-.

    • I have had that happen pretty often in my previous job! People would walk all through the cube farm to ask, “Did you get my email?” (Um, I’m sure I did…) or to inform me that they had sent one. Argh indeed! :)

    • Hi Uttoran – exactly. It’s hard enough to get all of our work done without people tripping us up and wasting our time. Thanks for your comment – and please come back to Introvert Zone soon!

  5. This is true. Well, we really can’t totally wipe out interruptions at work, in school, or anywhere. They are like almost everywhere. But we can avoid them and not make them the reason for us not to finish our task. Let’s just focus on the more important things that and not let any interruption overtake us.

  6. It is important to be confident and yet polite when asking others not to interrupt us. In particular if we work in a fast paced or time sensitive environment.

  7. I find it quite difficult to handle those who have nothing to do and constantly interrupt one’s work day. However, I smile and say: I am busy right now, would you mind if we get together a little later or discuss this off line after office hours? 9 times out of 10 it works well with others.

  8. Amazing blog. It’s as though the story of life is being laid out here for everyone to see.
    lol.

    My own way of getting people off my back is to casually play my phone’s ring tome without them noticing. The phone seems to ring, I answer it, act surprised and then
    excuse myself to go complete the conversation in a private place.

    Unfortunately some buggers don’t get the message and would even escort you to the loo to take a piss so they can continue rambling. Aaargh!
    .-= Udegbunam Chukwudi´s last blog ..Make Money Blogging By Daniel Scocco Short Review =-.

  9. I’m glad I’m not the only one who thinks this way. I also work in an IT environment where I develop internal web applications for the company’s needs. I absolutely hate it when I get interrupted! I lose my train of thought and I feel it actually takes me a few steps backwards.

    And for me, the end of the day is actually considered an interruption! Whenever possible, I like to finish the current task. If I decide to start and pick up where I left off the next morning, I find myself (again) trying to remember what I was doing. I’ve been suggested by others to write down where I left off, but it simply isn’t the same!
    .-= Victor´s last blog ..The Company of Myself =-.

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