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Boost Your Productivity By Acknowledging Distractions: How To Avoid Interruptions At Work

September 13, 2022 - 14 min read

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Types of interruptions at work

How to minimize interruptions at work

How to refocus after an interruption

Don’t sabotage yourself

How many times has this happened to you?

You’re working on a document in a perfect state of flow until your phone rings with an important message. You check and reply quickly.

Then, since you’re there, you decide it’s worth checking your email, too. And right after that, you can squeeze in a quick look at your socials. 

After all, you’ve been productive this morning! A short break is surely in order. 

Next thing you know, 15 minutes have passed. And by the time you return to your document, you don’t remember your last train of thought. It takes another 15 minutes for you to re-orient yourself and pay full attention. Add it all up, and that little message just costs you half an hour!

These kinds of distractions are time-consuming and costly. And, whether you’re working from home because of the pandemic or getting re-acquainted with an office workspace, more things than ever can pull you off track.

It’s up to you to stay on task. And part of that involves setting boundaries between yourself and potential detractors. Here are our tips on how to avoid interruptions at work.

Types of interruptions at work

Avoiding interruptions is difficult but not impossible — and not always necessary. A simple way to improve your personal productivity and well-being is to distinguish between valid and invalid interruptions. Here’s a description of both, with examples of interruptions at work.

Valid interruptions are simply part of your job or otherwise unavoidable. You have no choice but to deal with them right away. Here are some examples:

  • If you’re responsible for an intern, it’s important they feel comfortable approaching you with questions. Assuming they have legitimate concerns, their interruptions are valid.
  • Collaboration may also be a central part of your role. If that’s the case, you can expect interruptions regarding important project updates.
  • If you’re a parent, you can expect interruptions related to your kid(s). If you work from a home office, they will probably need your attention once in a while. At work, the school can call at any moment if there’s an incident.

Invalid interruptions are distractions you don’t have to deal with right away or at all. For example:

  • A friend might call you to make plans for the weekend. Some personal things, like calling the bank, can be done while on work time. But making weekend plans should wait until the end of the day.
  • Phone notifications from your social media accounts might constantly pull your focus to your screen. Unless you use social media to coordinate and communicate with your team members, you can probably mute them while you’re at work.

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How to minimize interruptions at work

By now, you wonder how to stop interruptions at work. In some ways, you can’t. Not completely. And you can’t avoid interrupting people. If you need your boss's attention, it’s hard to find the right time to send that weighty Slack message. But you can minimize them.

Here’s what to do.

1. Log your interruptions

Try keeping an Interrupters Log. This will give you a clearer picture of the interruptions you experience daily. You can then look for patterns and decide on a course of action to deal with these distractions.

When you record an interruption, include these elements:

  • The person or thing that interrupted you
  • The date and time that it occurred
  • What the interruption was about
  • Whether it was valid
  • Whether it was urgent

These details will provide valuable insight into when you should prepare for questions or set firmer boundaries about when people can contact you.

2. Use routine meetings to address non-urgent issues

If people know they’ll have access to you soon, they can hang onto their questions, comments, and concerns until you meet. This is especially helpful if you have a handful of people you work with closely. Schedule a regular weekly meeting, ask them to keep a list of things they want to discuss, and you can do the same. Then you can address everything in a single focused session.

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3. Budget time for interruptions

Your Interrupters Log might have many valid interruptions. If that’s the case, make sure to account for them in your schedule. 

If you regularly have a post-lunch rush of phone calls from your sales team, don’t schedule important work during this time. This will help prevent you from being overwhelmed if you’re on a deadline but can’t say no to your team.

And if your company is remote and spans time zones, figure out how to use those to your advantage. Maybe you can do your deep work in the morning before your west coast team members are awake.

4. Use your calendar’s “available” and “unavailable” functions

Whether you use Slack, Teams, or Google, your organization’s software likely has a “status” function. Use it to let people know when you don’t want to be interrupted. Just change it back to “active” once your interruption-free block is over. 

Alternatively, you can use an emailed automatic reply for the same purpose. Leave a short message saying when you’ll get around to answering them.

5. Politely say “no”

If you’re too busy, you can refuse a request or a task. Or, at the very least, ask for an extended deadline.

It’s tempting to say “yes” to everything when you want to be a team player. But, if you develop symptoms of burnout, you only hurt your team and yourself in the long run. Learn how to say “No.”

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6. Keep your team in the loop

You already know that communication is key. Let people know what you’re working on and how it fits your team’s goals. This will help you manage expectations of what you can and can’t help with that day. 

You can do this through daily conference room meetings, email chains, or chat messages in the morning. If others do the same, you’ll work better knowing what each is doing.

7. Set up your tech to reduce distractions

Take some time to make your devices work for you. Your smartphone likely has a “do not disturb” function that can silence most notifications. If you’re worried about missing important calls, like your kids’ school, add a filter to let certain calls through.

8. Take your time responding to an issue

When someone reaches out for help, the issue might feel urgent at the time. But chances are, it’s not a crisis. Take a deep breath, respond calmly, and avoid rushing to conclusions. A small delay can help you both assess the situation correctly. 

9. Set your boundaries and stick to them

Some distractions are unavoidable. But, when they do happen, make sure to set boundaries for the conversation:

  • Politely communicate that you’re busy and ask if you can discuss it later
  • If not, set parameters for the conversation and stick to it. For example, “I only have five minutes to talk about this right now.”
  • Ask yourself whether you’re the best person for this issue or question. Politely refer them elsewhere if not
  • If you can’t reach a solution in five minutes, schedule a follow-up meeting and ask them to prepare their questions. With any luck, they’ll resolve their issue before you meet

10. Practice self-awareness

How many of these interruptions can you avoid if you change some of your own behavior? Perhaps you could improve your delegation skills, foster resilience among your team, or develop your leadership skills.

This kind of self-awareness can help you avoid issues and prevent frustration.

If you’ve tried these tips and still feel you can’t handle interruptions, try working with BetterUp. Our coaches can help you assess your situation and develop a plan for reducing distractions at work.

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How to refocus after an interruption

Distractions are a normal part of work, so don’t beat yourself up if it happens to you. The trick is to bounce back quickly so you don’t lose much time.

Here’s how you can minimize lost time due to an interruption.

  1. Jot down your last train of thought. If you’re working on a document and someone pulls you away, quickly write down what you’re thinking at that exact moment. A simple bullet-point list of next steps and ideas can help you pick up where you left off.
  2. Re-read what you wrote. Reviewing what you’ve done so far can help bring back your pre-interruption mindset.
  3. Go for a walk. If you can’t immediately refocus, take a breather. Stand up, move around, and get a coffee or some fresh air. This will help rejuvenate you so you can refocus more easily.
  4. Be kind to yourself. Responding to interruptions counts as productivity — so don’t feel bad if you didn’t finish the important task of the workday.
  5. Set a timer. Set a timer for 15 minutes and see how much you can do. Chances are you’ll breeze right past your alarm. But, if you’re still not focused after that period of time, take a five-minute break and try again. Eventually, these bursts of productivity will put you back in the zone.
  6. Start with something easy. Format your document, color the cells in your spreadsheet, and adjust the headings. These are small inputs that can put you back in the workflow. You have to do them eventually, so you may as well get to it now.

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Don’t sabotage yourself

Interruptions can make you feel like you’re doing less than you actually are. But a to-do list with fewer Xs than you’d hoped it to have is still valuable. You made progress, and that sets future you up for success. Focus on what you accomplished — not what you couldn’t.

Helping your team is important work, and you should be proud of that. But now, your goal should be to help your colleagues thrive as much as they can without you. 

These tips on how to avoid interruptions at work are a good place to start. Setting clear boundaries will help them respect your time and solve problems independently.

And, if you ever feel overwhelmed, BetterUp is here to support you. With our coaches, you can discuss your work challenges and find solutions. Whether you want to minimize interruptions or improve your time management skills, we can get there together.

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Published September 13, 2022

Elizabeth Perry

Content Marketing Manager, ACC

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