Helping Ambitious People Achieve Challenging Goals Email: Phone: 212-972-9495

Thinking Directions

Coping with Interruptions

By some estimates, people lose 2 hours of work a day due to interruptions. The time is wasted in two ways: First, when you are interrupted, you often lose your place. You have to go back and redo some of the work to restore your working context. Second, the topic of the interruption is often relatively unimportant--so you have less time for your highest priorities.

How can you avoid this tremendous waste of time? Many people recommend putting barriers in place so that you are less accessible. There are many tricks: turn off the ringer on the phone, close the email program, do your work in a secret hiding place. Barriers can be helpful, but they can't eliminate all interruptions, and they oughtn't eliminate the minority of interruptions that are important.

To cope more effectively with interruptions that happen, I recommend a 3-D approach: Delay, Delimit, Decide.

First, delay the interrupter briefly while you capture your mental state. 30 seconds spent making notes to yourself about where you are makes a huge difference in how difficult it is to get back into the work. I offered a technique called a "mental cleanup" to help you save your state in a previous newsletter.

While you're capturing your thoughts, do not let your interrupter talk. There is no interruption that can't wait 30 seconds while you jot some notes. Just put up your hand and say, "just a second, let me capture my thoughts."

Second, delimit the interruption. Allot at most two minutes to find out whether this interruption is more important than what you're already doing.

Start by asking him if he thinks it's more important. Maybe say something like, "I'm in the middle of (your project) right now, and I'd rather not stop now. Can this wait until (the next time you will have a break)?" If he doesn't think it can wait, ask him for the quick 1-minute overview of the issue--what it is, and why it's so urgent.

Third, decide for yourself whether the interruption is more important than what you're doing. His priorities may not align with your priorities. It's your time at stake--make a conscious decision whether to spend your time on this interruption.

If you agree the interruption is important, and you need to spend some time dealing with it, ask for another minute to go back, check your notes from the mental cleanup, and make sure they are legible and there's nothing you want to add. You won't be back to this task for a while, so you want to leave your notes for picking up again as clear as possible.

If, on the other hand, you don't think the interruption is important, you need to politely disengage. It's helpful to have a stock response ready. Here's one that could work: "I'm sorry, but I can't take time to address this right now. We can talk about it (at what time). To speed up that discussion, would you send me an email about it?" (And then of course, follow up as you promise.)

It's important that you disengage quickly. Do not get into a discussion about your decision. Your goal is to get back to your higher priority work, without being further distracted.

If your interrupter doesn't to want to take "no" for an answer, just say no again. Miss Manners explained how to say "no" politely in one of her books. Say, "I'm sorry, it's just not possible." When asked "why?" say, "Because it's impossible." End of story. Nothing to argue about.

Interruptions are real. They are disruptive. They are sometimes unavoidable. To make help make sure you don't waste time due to interruptions, use the three D's: DELAY the interruption so you can make some notes, DELIMIT the time to determine whether it's important, then DECIDE whether you truly need to stop what you were doing--or should get right back to it.

Delay. Delimit. Decide.

—Jean Moroney


This article originally appeared in the Thinking Directions newsletter on 3/9/12.


Back to Thinking Tips