You’re sitting at your desk and you’re trying to get something done. Maybe it’s a report. Maybe it’s a budget. Maybe it’s a presentation and Simon, or Sarah, or someone comes and perches on the corner of the desk and starts to chat.
Or maybe it’s not that. Maybe the phone rings, and without stopping to ask if now is a good time, the caller launches into a conversation – or starts to ask about something of interest or concern to them.
In both cases you’re pleasant, considerate and allow the person to talk – while secretly feeling frustrated that you can’t get on, and concerned that you may end up missing a deadline or getting behind as a result.
Recognise the scenario? It happens all the time. Even if the interruption is relatively brief, you still lose time, because it can take you 5 minutes, 10 minutes or more to get your head back into what you were doing. Many people get interrupted several times in a day, so it is easy to lose an hour of productivity. Bang goes any hope of clearing your To Do list.
While it’s great to be approachable, there are many times when you need to focus. This can be especially challenging if you work in an open-plan office. The absence of walls means there’s nothing to stop people coming over and talking to you. Even if you put your head down and don’t look around you’ll find many people can’t, or do not, read the signals. Here are 3 ways to avoid this.
1. Communicate clearly and confidently
What does it mean to be assertive? It means telling people clearly, and confidently, when it is not convenient for you to be interrupted. Some people are confused about the difference between assertiveness and aggression. As a result they don’t communicate what they think and what they want as directly as they might. A common tactic is to hint, or suggest – hoping the other person will get the message. But often they don’t.
2. “I can give you five minutes maximum right now”
Seek to keep interruptions as short as possible. Giving the person a clear, specific, time limit upfront helps: make it five minutes, three minutes, just one minute, whatever makes sense. Say it right at the beginning of the conversation, and then be true to it. Smile, be friendly – but be firm.
3. Put up a ‘do not disturb’ sign
Consider finding some way of signaling when you don’t want to be disturbed. I used to work in a small office with someone called Monica who would put on a tall, conical witch’s hat when she was doing a task that required concentration. We all knew we should only speak to her if it was a life or death situation. If it could wait for an hour, we just waited for the hat to come off. A witch’s hat might not be your thing, but maybe you could put something on the top of your computer screen that serves the same function.
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