Do you struggle to concentrate effectively at work? Are you constantly dealing with interruptions from your co-workers? You’re far from alone.
A 2014 survey by Virgin Pulse found that over 54% of respondents cited distractions from other workers as the single biggest drain on their productivity during the working day.
The cost of distraction is substantial. Another study found that the average time to refocus on the task at hand after an interruption is over 23 minutes. Multiply that figure by a roomful of workers in an open-plan environment, and the “puzzle” of poor work productivity that many managers struggle to understand seems less surprising.
Arranging your circumstances so you can have at least one hour per day to work completely undisturbed is a regularly recommended strategy of the highly successful. As ETR Editor Craig Ballantyne has often pointed out, the volume of work that can be accomplished in your morning “magic time” may well surpass what you accomplish during the rest of your day.
For many of us, interruptions are a fact of life. Even if you follow Craig’s advice to get up early and get your personal “quiet time” work done, there will be interruptions throughout the rest of your working day.
But there are ways to effectively tackle those interruptions. Here are some tried-and-tested strategies for coping with co-worker interruptions and other pesky work distractions.
1. Remove the Visitor’s Chair
This is one of the oldest tricks in the book, but it does a great job of dissuading well-meaning callers from staying too long in your workspace.
If you want to keep a chair by your desk for when meetings are required, then you can place an open folder on the chair the rest of the time to achieve the same effect.
2. Use the Power of Silence
When your phone rings or someone pops their head in your office to ask a question, do something that will remind you of your task when the interruption is over—such as making a brief note. Then, briefly greet the caller and remain completely silent. Sounds easy, right?
It’s amazing how many people fill the moments after an interruption with a babble of pleasantries and chat. Save that for when you are both on a break. Your silence will remind the interrupter that your time is valuable, and that they had better get to the point quickly.
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3. Use Your Finger (No, not what you’re thinking!)
If you are working with a document when interrupted, place your finger on the place where you were working before turning to face the interrupter.
This not only helps you get back on track faster afterwards, but sends a clear message that you are in the middle of something and really shouldn’t be disturbed for longer than necessary.
4. Set Up “Scheduled Interruptions” with a Talk File
If someone is necessarily interrupting you every hour or two, set up a daily or twice daily stand-up meeting with them to discuss your talk file, i.e. all outstanding questions they may have. While this won’t remove the problem altogether, even a 25% reduction in unscheduled interruptions will hugely benefit your overall productivity.
A talk file is a great tool that you can use to avoid interrupting others frequently, and to encourage them to do the same for you. A talk file can be a folder, document holder, or tray where you place all questions that you have to speak to a certain person about. If the subject in question is an email, you can print it out and place it in the talk file.
Approach your co-worker at the end of the day and go through the talk file all at once instead of bothering them with separate interruptions, spaced through the day. This is far more efficient for you and for them.
5. Schedule Offline Time
If your whole working role involves interruptions—as is often the case for receptionists or sales/customer service representatives—then plan some time each day to be offline to allow yourself to keep on top of all your commitments.
You will need to work with your colleagues on this. Often, you will find they will be grateful if you give them the same opportunity. It doesn’t need to be a big block of time. Even if you set aside 15 minutes in the morning and another 15 in the afternoon to clear any items off your to-do list, this will lead to a more productive and restful state of mind than if you are on constant red alert.
While these 5 techniques for reducing work interruptions can be very effective, keep in mind that you also want to be courteous to your colleagues. Be aware that they, too, likely suffer from myriad pressures and interruptions, and appreciate your respect. Implement these rules with kindness and you will likely find many office converts.