by Grace Judson
The conversation that isn’t going anywhere, but won’t go away—it’s one of the challenges for administrative professionals, whose workspace seldom has a door to close, and might not even have a cubicle doorway to turn your back on. You’ve got projects, tasks, and deadlines just like anyone else, but the chances of your being interrupted tend to be high, especially if you also act as gatekeeper for your manager. With your desk in plain view of passersby, you run a constant risk of interruption and delay.
Interruptions are no small thing. Even a momentary distraction causes the brain to switch gears. Studies show that it can take an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back on track with the original task. That’s not a typo. It really is 23 minutes and 15 seconds—almost half an hour of productive time lost per interruption.
So what can you do when you have a high-priority project you really must focus on, but you’re constantly being interrupted—sometimes by people who just want to chat?
Recognize that there are some interruptions you can’t avoid
Obviously if your boss, the CEO, or some other high-authority person needs your time, you’ll need to respond. But when you make a written list for yourself of people who have the right to interrupt you no matter what you’re doing, you’ll find it much easier to just say no to the rest of the world.
Turn off electronic interrupters
Send your office phone to voicemail. Turn off your cell phone. Shut down email.
We’re conditioned by our devices to remain constantly connected, so it can be hard to do this. Nonetheless, give it a try—and be prepared to be amazed by how much time you’ll save when you’re not checking email or responding to your phone.
Put a sign on your desk
Some organizations support focus time for their employees through “do not disturb” signs. Putting a sign up that says, “I’m in focus mode right now—please only interrupt in case of emergency!” can be a simple way of diverting anyone who’s just looking for a chat or whose question or request isn’t urgent.
Schedule a meeting with yourself—including a conference room
To truly secure uninterrupted time for yourself, schedule a meeting on your calendar and book a conference room. If your calendar is publicly accessible, as many businesses require, you’re clearly unavailable during that time. Plus, being able to take your work into a conference room and close the door creates quiet high-focus space for concentration.
When you’re stuck in a conversation
There will always be times when you’ll feel stuck. Perhaps you went to get coffee and got waylaid in the break room; maybe someone stopped by your desk with an important question, but then lingered to chat; or possibly you answered the phone, answered the caller’s request, but now you can’t get off the phone. You want to disengage and get back to your work, but you also want to be polite! A little creative thinking can help a lot in this situation.
“I have a meeting in a few moments—is there anything else you need?” is one possibility, especially when you’re dealing with someone over the phone.
The eternally-useful excuse of going to the restroom is always an option. (Unless, of course, you got waylaid in the restroom—and then you can use “I have a meeting to get to.”)
In the end, though, honesty is never a bad choice. “Hey, I’d love to hear more about what happened over the weekend, but I’m on a really tight deadline. Can we catch up later?”
Especially if this is a significant shift from how you’ve handled interruptions in the past, you’ll want to be sensitive about introducing these new processes. You may want to check in with your manager to be sure they’ll support you, especially if some of the choices you now want to make are different from how your organization typically operates.
Be sure to present this in terms of the benefit to them, rather than how much less frustrated you’ll be! When you say, “I want to do these things so I can support your success more effectively and complete this important project in the best possible way,” they’ll be much more likely to hear you out—and agree with you.
Choose what works, leave the rest
Try out one suggestion at a time. If it works—yay. If not, drop it and try something else.
Just try something. Because a day filled with interruptions is likely to send you home worn out and frustrated, instead of pleased and proud about how much you were able to accomplish.
Your family will thank you. And so will your boss.