You finally get a chance to deal with that report at 5pm. You have been fire fighting all day, you are exhausted after dealing with your team’s urgent tasks, and you haven’t done one thing that you had planned.
Is this your average day?
If this scenario sounds more than a little familiar, you are not alone. In our recent LinkedIn Poll, 65% of respondents cited unplanned interruptions as the activity preventing them most from achieving your works goals. More than meetings, tasks delegated by the boss, emails and staff issues, unplanned interruptions disrupt the day of Managers and leaders.
So what can you do about it? Here are our 10 tips for avoiding unplanned interruptions.
1. Plan for them. What? How can you plan for the unplanned you might be asking? One simple mistake that managers make is attempting to schedule every minute of every day with tasks they can control . It doesn’t work. While planning is an essential step for meeting goals and deadlines, trying to plan too much in a day is a disaster waiting to happen. Set aside some ‘contingency time’ in the diary for meetings to go over time, phone calls to be answered and urgent emails to be responded to. You will be far more likely to stay on track and not let interruptions derail your plans.
2. Get your team to plan for them. How often have you had team members ask the same question of you in a day? Many interruptions that we deal with on the spot don’t have to be dealt with straight away. Have you heard the phrase ‘I have an open door policy’ or ‘my door is always open’ from Managers? This phrase should be cut out and burnt from the Manager 101 handbook. Just as a parents doesn’t have to react to every sigh, cry or move that their child makes in the night, managers don’t need to address every tiny issue as it arises. Leaders and managers need to be approachable, and it is important to discern the difference between an interruption and a larger issue. To help address this problem, work out the times of the week that both you and your team (and your boss) can schedule ‘catch up time’. It only needs to be 5 minutes in the day, but that consistent time will take out many of the unplanned interruptions in your day.
3. Talk to the serial offenders. You know who they are! These are the people that bring you one little issue at a time, 5 or 6 times a day. And let’ be honest, it feels pretty good on the quiet days to feel like you are helping and guiding them along. On the hectic days though, it is a lodestone around your neck. Discuss with the serial offenders what impact it is having on your day and the ability to get your work done. Suggest saving the non-urgent issues until they have 2 or 3 and then come and see you, or schedule a ‘catch up’ at a convenient time of the day.
4. Remove a communication channel. Interruptions commonly come in the form of emails, phone calls and face-to-face discussions. Removing yourself from one of those communication channels can make a big difference. Turn off your email for 10 minutes. Will it really make that big a difference if you don’t read the latest bold email as it comes in? (Last time I checked, life threatening communications didn’t come by email, they are always verbal or face-to face). Find a quiet space that you can’t be interrupted for a ½ hour. Set your phone to voicemail. If it is really urgent, the person trying to reach you will try another channel.
5. Train your team to deal with the little things. You know the adage ‘Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime’. The same applies for interruptions. Many of the things that are brought to you (for decision, discussion or information) could be dealt with more than adequately by the person that brought it to you. Tell them. Encourage them. If you know they have dealt with a similar issue before, remind them. Often interruptions to your day are created by a lack of confidence and the need for reassurance from the boss.
6. Find a suitable time to deal with it. Interruptions are annoying because the person interrupting you expects you to deal with their problem at a time that suits them, not a time that suits you. If you are in the middle of an important thought or important report, tell the person who has interrupted you. Try this response:
‘Michael, do you have a minute to discuss …….’
‘Hi ……… – not at this minute. I need about another 10 minutes to finish this report while the thoughts are in my head. Can I get back to you (or can you get back to me) then?
Unless it is incredibly urgent (the boss has steam coming out of his ears, you have an angry client or it is life and death), 10 minutes won’t make a difference to the person interrupting you. Focussing on your problem / report / task while it is in your head and not having to come back and start again 10 times in 3 hours – that is worth its weight in gold. But make sure you get back to them – otherwise you can add ‘breaker of promises’ to ‘didn’t help me with my problems’ to the list of gripes you may face.
7. Learn to assess the problem. How often has an interruption that you thought would require a ‘yes/no’ answer taken much longer? I had a boss who had a great response for interruptions. When asked ‘do you have a minute’ when he was busy, would reply with ‘is this going to be a 30-second or a 10 minute discussion?’ Your response would determine whether he would answer it quickly or whether you needed to come back later when he had the time to deal with it properly.
8. Seek out the interruptions. You know who are the people most likely to interrupt you during the day (I bet you could count off the names on your fingers). Rather than wait for the interruption to happen when you are in the middle of an important task, seek out responses before you get started. There is nothing wrong with saying to your boss or colleagues ‘I need to focus for about two hours on report X – is there anything you need of me now before I get started?’ You might not clear all of the interruptions that you normally have to deal with, but it can’t hurt.
9. Use your peers. Your peers are the most under-utilised resource when it comes to managing unplanned interruptions. I worked with an insurance business in which the team leaders used each other beautifully to prevent interruptions for periods of time using red flags. With 4 team leaders on the same floor, they coached their team members to seek help from the team leader that had their ‘read flag’ raised. They were then the ‘go to’ team leader for all questions and phone responses for that hour. The team leader with the red flag was constantly busy and on the go the whole time – but they were prepared for the onslaught and knew how long they would do it for. The other three team leaders could then focus on their core responsibilities which included reports and coaching. While the flags may not work for your business, could you buddy up with a peer to find some clear time?
10. Learn to say no. We all love to be needed, and often, I secretly like feeling that my team depends upon me. To avoid interruptions, sometimes we just have to say no.
‘When doing the tasks that others can do, you are not doing the tasks that only you can do’
Avoiding interruptions comes down to management of priorities – is it more important for you to finish your task or to deal with the interruption? It can be hard to do at first, but saying no isn’t being rude, it is establishing the importance of your role and reaffirming your boundaries. If you accept every interruption as something that you must deal with, you are not a servant leader, you are a doormat.
If those ‘little interruptions’ are eating into your day, it is for the good of yourself, your team and your business for you to do something about it.