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Got A Minute? How To Handle Constant Interruptions At Work

August is finally over, Labor Day has come and gone, and all of your once-vacationing co-workers are back in the office and ready to rock and roll. Now you can finally get some real work don...huh? Uh, what? Please pardon the interruption, what was I saying again?

August was slow and staff-strapped, but it was all sorts of awesome because the co-workers who constantly interrupt you took turns being out of the office. The always-emailing co-worker, the cackling cube farm dweller, the "do you have a sec?" memo-reminding hall walker...they all went incommunicado, even if it was only for regular, three-hour "working" lunches at the corner T.G.I. Friday's while your constantly-interrupting boss was on vacation. Ahhhh, quiet. This place is like a freaking library! Now you can finally concentrate and get some work done. Your train of thought is well on its way to its final destination, and it'll be arriving 30 minutes early.

But now your train of thought is broken down at the station because it's the first week of September and your in-your-face co-workers are falling back into the daily routine (at least until the holidays arrive). They're once again constantly emailing, filling the office's four walls with loud, cackling laughter, instant messaging crying emoticons, and roaming the hallways with useless updates and reminders. Did you really have to interrupt me to say this? IT'S NOT THAT IMPORTANT!!!

Or maybe you keep interrupting yourself with personal business. The text messages from your significant other. The phone conversations with friends, family, and your kids. Deleting junk mail. Reading email. Surfing news sites. You know that it takes you 15-to-20 minutes to regain your train of thought after reading email, right? Right.

So how should you handle constant interruptions at work, especially if you've reached the point that your interruptions are having interruptions? Like a modern-day Susan Powter, you want to stretch out your arms to stop the insanity. Or you can enter search terms ranging from "my co-workers keep interrupting me" to "I can't get anything done at work anymore" that lead you to weird, random blog posts. I'm so sorry you've reached this point, er blog. You must be at your wit's end.

I'm also sorry to tell you that outside of telling your co-workers to stop bugging you every five minutes, there's not a lot you can do without a concerted effort from management, who, truth be told, may be among the worst offenders when it comes to constant interruptions. Hey, Bill, is that report done yet? Well, it WOULD be done, if I weren't being interrupted every five minutes. Hint, hint...

You can always set a few boundaries, though. You can close your office door (if you have one) during peak thought moments. You can kindly tell the administrative assistant to hold your calls (unless so-and-so calls, and only if so-and-so calls). You can let more calls go to voice mail (if your employer lets you). You can ignore your smartphone for a little bit, or check it only at specific times. You can find another place to work temporarily (the conference room usually has a door...). You can learn to tune out the ambient noise (yes, I believe this is possible). You can place a sign on your desk or cube that says, "on deadline, please no interruptions until [time]." You can wear earphones, but be careful not to look too anti-social. You can work in your car. You can take work home.

Actually, your goal should always be to avoid the last tip, and making it happen will require extreme discipline and a laser-like focus on your part. Your employer can take a few needed steps as well, such as deciding what's truly important. Which fires are the most important to fight on a daily basis? How do we as a company define "emergency" and "crisis"? What automatically rises up the food chain, and what can wait? How will we train new employees in our re-calibrated work ways, and how will we re-coach long-time employees? Should we have fewer meetings (hint: yes, yes and yes!). Which email threads should be "reply all" vs. simply "reply"? How will we give our "knowledge" employees more time to think? If someone's going to roam the hallways with useless pointers and reminders, should we relegate them to email or a message on a whiteboard? (P.S.: The roaming employees might be upset to be corralled, so be prepared.)

Think of it this way: If you don't do anything, your best employees will spend at least 15-to-20 minutes EVERY HOUR regaining their train of thought after being reminded (again) that there's cake in the break room. You, Sir or Madame Manager, are the gateway to greater employee productivity, and you possess the power to improve this third rail of the workplace.

We can all do better. We can all learn to interrupt less and focus more. Huh? Uh, what? Please pardon me, I'm being interrupted. No really, I am. For reals. I guess I'd better take some of my own advice.


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