“I LOVE being interrupted”, said no one ever!
This article contains tips for handling seven common types of interruptions.
Which interruptions impact you most?
Take a second and rank the following interruption types from 1-highest impact to 7-lowest impact. Then you can click on the one that impacts you the most to read tips on how to set boundaries that help with that one.
- People talk over you
- Kids interrupt your work
- People take advantage of your open door policy
- You get a lot of phone calls
- You get a lot of text messages (or messages on teams, slack, discord etc.)
- You are working on one thing and get distracted
Before we get to specific interruptions- lets talk about boundaries
To handle interruptions you have to set boundaries. Contrary to popular believe, a boundary is NOT making other people behave a certain way. Sorry, humans do what they want to. A boundary is strictly a decision about what YOU will do when a certain thing happens that violates your boundary.
So: When is an interruption a boundary violation for you?
People will still interrupt you (yeah, sorry I can’t make them stop) BUT you can decide when it has violated a boundary, and what you will do when they do it.
When you calmly and patiently set boundaries, the people around you usually respond.
People talk over you.
- If someone talks over you, you can just keep talking and don’t stop. When the interrupter gives up trying to interrupt, you can go back and repeat what you were saying when they started to interrupt you (because people probably missed it)
- Calmly say the person’s name and ask them to let you finish your thought. This sounds like, “Joe, please let me finish and then we’ll make time to get to your point next”.
- It’s also important to ask yourself … are you taking a breath and pausing so that others have a chance to share their thoughts too? Or are you, “talking, and stringing together thought after thought because you want to make sure to make your point and you think that if you say the same thing multiple ways and then explain why are are saying it that you will be heard more effectively and people will listen to you and adopt your ideas but if you don’t explain this one more thing they might not understand” (huge breath in). If you are. Please practice speaking in phrases. And pause.
Kids interrupt you
- Children are learning what’s appropriate behavior and what isn’t. They are definitely going to interrupt you because they don’t have impulse control. They interrupt like it’s their job.
- Your job is to teach them how to let you focus.
- My favorite technique is to tell the kids that interrupting your work is a problem and then involve them in creating a fun solution.
- Say, “I want you to help me with something. I know I work a lot and when you interrupt that means my work takes longer so I can’t hang out with you as soon. So if you interrupt me, I’m going to tell you you have to wait and I’m not going to pay attention to you. I was thinking we could make fun colorful signs I can put on my desk so you know if it’s okay to interrupt.”
- Then you get to do art together.
- Make a green sign that means, “It’s ok to interrupt”
- A yellow ones that means “I am doing something hard and need to concentrate”
- A pink one that means “I’m on a call and listening, please don’t interrupt”
- And a red ones that means “I’m doing a presentation so no interruptions unless there is a big emergency”
The kids can help you come up with all the different kinds of signs you might need. They’ll have fun with it.
If they interrupt at an inappropriate time then you will kindly remind them what to do and ask them to come back later. The key will be to not reward the interruption. Make them wait. even if it’s just for 30 seconds. They won’t interrupt less at first, but if you hold the boundary and make them wait then the interruptions will reduce over time.
If they are really little, like babies or toddlers, then the kids aren’t ready for this and you’ll need someone to care for them while you are working.
If they are much older, as in teens, the signs can still work. For a long time I would put up a sign on my desk that said “I’m on video”. They never came in the room when that sign was up.
Open Door Policy
You have an open door policy and people come in and ask you questions all day long. (So you secretly hate your open door policy) Have you told your team that you will help them any time at all? This is great unless it prevents you from getting key work done.
- Keep your open door policy, but decide when you need to focus. Give yourself two hours of focus time each day and tell your team when it is.
- Use private focus rooms if they are available, or put a sign on your desk saying it’s your focus time. (if you read the kids section… yes, it works on adults too)
- Set office hours around your open door policy. You can tell the team, I have an open door policy from 8 to 10am and from 1 to 3PM every day. Outside of those hours I am focused on work or calls and cannot be interrupted.
- Decide what your boundary is, communicate it to your team, and then if people interrupt you, then take an action to communicate the violation. It can be as simple ask asking them to come back later.
You get a lot of phone calls.
- Decide when you will take calls and when you will let them go to voicemail. Then if the phone rings outside of your calls time, let it go to voicemail.
- If it is part of your job description to immediately answer calls when the phone rings, then you will need to set up focus time to get work done. Get agreement with your manager on how much focus time is needed, and decide when you will have it.
- Be realistic about when you can get focus work done vs when you are available for phone calls.
- Turn the call volume down, or the ringer off during time you need to focus.
You get a lot of text messages (and emails)
- Decide when you are going to look for and respond to text messages, chat messages and emails. For me, three blocks of 30 minutes each day is usually enough, and my response time is still perceived as quick.
- Turn off notifications. All of them. You check often enough. You don’t need to be notified that new messages are there.
You are working on one thing and get distracted and go do something else.
My dear, you are human. Be kind to yourself. We all get distracted. You can have a boundary for yourself if you want to. You can plan ahead to prevent distraction, and you can decide how you will respond when you get distracted.
- What can you do to try to keep yourself focused? I personally like using noise cancelling headphones and playing music.
- Create a focusing space for yourself. Moving to a different location to work can help with focus.
- Use a timer when you are focusing.
- Response: When you notice that you have gotten distracted and have interrupted yourself, what will you do? It isn’t helpful to beat yourself up with negative self-talk. Instead, try thinking, “I am a human that got distracted, and now I am going to re-focus”. Practice refocusing as often as you need to. For me, this one comes up a LOT.
Other kinds of interruptions
For any kind of interruption at all, you can set up boundaries for yourself and plan ahead for how you will respond.
Think about the type of interruption that is impacting you. When does it happen and why is it a problem? Do you want to have a boundary around it? If so:
Describe what the boundary violation is, and decide what you will do if the violation occurs. Decide ahead of time. There’s not need for you to make a big announcement about your boundary. Just decide what you will do if it’s violated.
Here’s an example. When a person comes into my space and starts talking to me when I am working, and I want to complete my task, then I will consider that a boundary violation and I will tell them I need to focus and ask them to leave. If they do not leave then I will pick up my work and move myself to a quiet place where I can continue to focus.