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Summary:

Constant interruptions can kill your concentration and put a crimp in your productivity. And according to recent research, you are probably suffering the tyranny of interruptions much more often than you realize.

Do you have a moment?  Are you free? Can you help me? This will only take a minute. Yeah, right — how often have you heard that one? Constant interruptions can kill your concentration and put a crimp in your productivity.  And according to recent research, you are probably suffering the tyranny of interruptions much more often than you realize.

One study by Gloria Mark, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, found that workers spend on average only 10 minutes and thirty seconds on a task before being interrupted by either an external source (56 percent of the time) or self-interruption (44 percent of the time). Mark points out that part of the problem is how long it takes people to get back on track once they’ve been distracted.

“It takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds for people to return to the original task after being interrupted,” says Mark. “And 40 percent of the time, workers don’t return to their original task at all, but instead wander off in a new direction,” she says.

Another 2007 report, from the Center for Creative Leadership, found that 52 percent of managers surveyed are interrupted about once every 30 minutes. These interruptions come from co-worker requests, cell phone calls, incoming emails and multitasking. Among these, multitasking has a particularly negative impact on productivity. The Institute of Psychiatry at the University of London found that when workers are constantly juggling multiple tasks, their IQ falls ten points.

So how can you keep yourself from being driven to distraction? To overcome interruptions and stay on track, try these following seven strategies excerpted from my book, “Time Management In An Instant: 60 Ways to Make the Most of Your Day.”

Propose later: The next time someone strolls into your office asking, “Do you have a few minutes to talk?” say “I’d be happy to, but not right now.” Instead of dropping everything you are doing, make an appointment to meet later. Doing so will not only save you the stress of having to stop what you are working on and shift gears, but insures that later when you do meet, the other person will have your full focus.

Set a time limit: If the matter is urgent, find out how much time the person needs and negotiate to give them that much (and no more) at that moment. If future discussions are required, another meeting can be set up.  Most people when pressed to make their point quickly, will get to it in about half the time it would normally take.

Bypass the story: When you’re pressed for time, encourage people to bypass the narrative and get straight to the point. Ask the other person to summarize in one sentence what they need from you, the solution they propose and the specific time by which they need it.

Change locations: If you have a particular project that requires a lot of concentration, consider commandeering an empty office that is not in use and working from there.

Schedule open-door hours: Schedule, post and promote open-door hours on given days. With a little encouragement most people will wait until these times to talk to you about non-urgent matters.

Store supplies elsewhere: If co-workers come into your office to access files, office supplies or other materials, move them to a location where you are not continually disturbed by their retrieval.

Ditch the ding. If you receive a steady stream of incoming emails during the day and have your system set to alert you every time one comes in — kill it.  Even if you ignore the ding and don’t check email, the noise still acts as a distraction and can disrupt your concentration.

Lastly, don’t forget that the point of limiting interruptions is to improve your productivity and effectiveness – not to avoid the people around you. Always keep in mind the bigger picture of your customers’, co-workers’ and company’s needs, as you strive to conquer disruptions and sustain your concentration.

What tricks do you use to avoid distractions?

By Karen Leland

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  1. I agree with all of this, but some additional things I always consider:

    Propose later: If someone is always vying for my time, but rarely gives me THEIR time when I need it, I address it when they ask for help. “So our relationship will always be only when you need me, am I clear in thinking this?” If I don’t profit from what I do for others, it is important that they know they’ve reached backburner status.

    Set a time limit: This is so important, but you also have to consider your upcoming schedule. I don’t always just set a time limit for a meeting or job, I also let people know that I expect them to answer my future questions in a timely fashion. I warn them if they drop the ball on me, it means they’re not dedicated to their own project.

    Open door hours: These are only for people who also set their own open door hours. This includes CEOs and CFOs who need to know that my time is important. I’ve barked down 2 CEOs in 2010 already for assuming they can call me whenever they want to. Both of those CEOs have increased my hourly compensation after realizing how much they need me and not vice versa (speaking as a consultant).

    Ditch the ding: I am writing an interesting IMAP-based webmail application that goes one step further: it will tell me how fast people respond to my emails, so I know not to respond to theirs too quickly.

    1. Article was fine, but I love this reply. As a service/consulting professional, it takes some time to take the approach that not only do we depend on our clients, but they do on us. The only way we can truly provide good service is if there is a quality interchange of needed information: If you want me to get this project done, then you have to provide the information I need to serve you best. If you don’t in a timely manner, then you can’t assume I will drop all when you finally get around to it–in YOUR 11th hour.

  2. Kevin MacDonell Monday, January 25, 2010

    On the subject of self-interruptions, which are doubly annoying because you’ve got no one to blame but yourself. I’m using two strategies. The first is familiar to many of us: I use a timer, and try to work in sprints of about 20 minutes at a time, with email and other distractions turned off completely. The second is somewhat related: ‘scheduled’ distractions. I created a list of all my favourite ways I have for distracting myself from work: email, Twitter, Facebook, blog stats checking (so addictive and so not worth it!), etc and so forth. I decided on a daily frequency for each item. Email once per hour, stats twice per day, Facebook only once per day, etc. I worked all that into a schedule. Now I still do my ‘sprints’, while rewarding myself with doses of things I like doing, every half hour or so. No anxiety about ‘missing’ something on Twitter or what-have-you. It’s on the list and I’ll get to it eventually, without overdoing it.

  3. Another strategy for reducing distractions is to put faith in employees to make some decisions without your approval. Train then trust your staff – make sure they are empowered. Not only will this allow you to focus, but it will give them growth opportunities, followed by coaching moments that might not have surfaced otherwise.

  4. I think a big productivity killer is that “water cooler” talk that occurs away from the “water cooler”.

    Companies should encourage conversations that aren’t related to day-to-day business activities and should designate a specific place for those conversations.

    Another way to avoid productivity killers is to start your work day 2 or 3 hours before anyone else gets in. I find I can do close to a full day worth of work in those precious 2 or 3 hours when no one is in.

  5. 7 Ways to Find Your Focus « Keefer Madness Friday, February 5, 2010

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  6. I use the 1-minute rule to have a standard time limit with at-desk interruptions…if it will take them more than one minute to ask their question and get what they need from someone, either summarize the request via email (and include a deadline) or set up a 15 minute meeting according to calendar availability. I also require that if someone brings a problem to me, they also need to present their best solution to that problem at the same time. I’m a firm believer in Ken Blanchard’s ‘No Monkeys’ rule. Usually, if someone has to think through an issue before presenting it most of the time they solve it themselves – this gives staff ownership of their projects as well.

  7. Mr. Self Development Tuesday, February 16, 2010

    Ditch the ding…this is certainly a must….great list…

  8. Ivor Tetteh-Lartey Sunday, February 21, 2010

    Yes being interrupted by junk sales calls trying to sell something you are not interested in.But the phone must be answered in case it is a valued client calling.

  9. 7 Ways to Find Your Focus http://t.co/3owOALd0

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