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Strategies to Minimize Interruptions & Optimize Interactions

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Amazingly, managing interruptions at work has the potential to save up to 21 days per year. Thus, it promises a return equal, if not greater than, any other productivity or efficiency investment you may be considering. The difference is it is free, with a range of practical tips and techniques to choose from.

Imagine a new piece of software or device promised to save 5, 10 or even 15 days per year – no doubt you would be interested in buying it!  Well, managing unwarranted interruptions could save up to 21 days per year and without any risk or expenditure.

What is Your Ratio of Interruptions to Interactions?

Each interaction with a team member or stakeholder can either be positive and efficient, or it could be an unwarranted and unmanaged interruption.

The ratio of interactions to interruptions is a key measure of efficiency as well as collaboration. It can also be a major determinant of the level of motivation, vitality and pressure within a team.

But, given the number of team members as well as stakeholders we deal with, the possibility for ongoing interruptions is enormous1. That is unless interruptions are effectively managed.

Why Manage Interruptions?

Despite its importance, the volume of interruptions rarely gets managed in a proactive sense. The result is that many executives are having too many interruptions rather than effective interactions.

As evidence, many executives get less than one hour of uninterrupted work in a typical day. If just a fraction of those interruptions were unwarranted, that could amount to as much as 21 days in a year.

It is not just about the lost time, there are also implications for the quality of complex work or decision-making and the level of pressure and motivation at work.

If your goal is to sustain peak performance (in the face of growing pressure) then managing unplanned and unwarranted interruptions is likely the greatest opportunity available to you. With this in mind here are a range of tips and techniques you can employ to maximize interactions and minimize interruptions.

Techniques for Managing Interruptions

1. Analyze how many interruptions you get and where they come from. Are they detracting from your performance or limiting your success? Reflect on your time bandits and energy vampires!

2. Triage your work (and any interruptions) based on Importance, Complexity and Urgency (ICU):

  • Before you engage in any task (interruption or not) assign a priority to it based on its importance.  That means putting some tasks to the back of the list and creating a queue2
  • Work that this complex will require more focused concentration—periods where you can work without interruption.
  • Clarify how urgent any interruption is. If something is urgent then re-check priorities: ‘If necessary I can do it immediately, but that would mean delaying x, y and z.  Would you like me to do that?’

3. Ensure clarity on what is required – Requests for help that have not been fully thought through can generate a lot of unnecessary work. For example, if somebody shares a document or slide deck, make sure you know what, if anything they want from you.  Do they want you to quickly scan it, review it line by line or add to it in some way? 

4. Manage people’s expectations about how quickly you can or will respond to their messages or requests.  For example: ‘I can’t deal with that straight away but I will get to it later today and will be back to you with a response in the morning’

5. Schedule focus time – uninterrupted periods where you can focus on getting your most important and complex work done:

  • Put these in your schedule as if they were a meeting3.
  • Break complex tasks / problems down into logical chunks and focus on one chunk at a time. 

6. Know when to collaborate and when not to collaborate. When you must collaborate use the 7Rs to ensure that you have the right people in the right roles, doing the right work etc. Minimize the number of people involved in any task – the more people involved the greater the number potential interruptions.

7. Don’t just drop things immediately there is an interruption:

  • It may be beneficial to take a task to a particular level of completion before focusing on the interruption.  For example, if you are writing an email then finish the email and attend to the interruption.
  • When you need to drop something take notes and checklists so that you can pick up more easily with your work after an interruption.

8. Totally respect other people’s time – thereby entitling you to expect that they will likewise respect your time. Ensure your interactions with your colleagues are effective interactions, rather than unwarranted or unplanned interruptions.

  • When you call somebody ask them are they ok to talk now
  • Cut down the number of people you CC on emails
  • Ensure people are clear on what you want from them and what the right result (for any task) looks like
  • If you host a meeting then ensure that only those needed are required to attend.

Find Yourself Being Easily Distracted?

Naturally, we look to others as the primary source of interruptions.  However, being prone to distraction, we can also be a part of the problem. With this in mind, here are some tips 

8. Get setup before you start – Distractions are more likely when our work is set up poorly. For example if you start a task without ensuring that you have all the materials you need to hand. Identify and tackle dependencies early on.

9. Take regular breaks – we are much more easily distracted when we have not had a break. Take a break before moving onto the next complex task – move about and get some exercise or fresh air.  It is important to remember that breaks are not interruptions.

10. Check your motivation. Lack of focus can be linked to lack of motivation. So, find ways to boost motivation for any activity – for example how does it connect to your purpose or goals, what challenge or opportunity for learning does it present, etc.

11. Remove physical clutter and other distractions (e.g. if you find yourself being drawn to what is happening out the window, move your desk, so it doesn’t look out the window). Noise reduction headphones could also help.

12. Make time for connection – we often see people as interruptions, but they also give meaning to our work. 

Finding it hard to concentrate?

One goal is to minimize interruptions, another is to optimize the quality of your most complex and important work, especially where your scarce thinking resources are required:

13. Treat your thinking time as a scarce resource and be careful how, when and where you allocate it. If something is not worthy of your thinking time don’t waste your resources on it. For example if the work you’re doing is good enough for now then let it go and focus elsewhere.

14. Ensure the timing is right.  For example, do not think about a problem until you need to or until you have all the required information to hand. Moreover, fit the task/problem to the time of day (e.g. tackle more complex and demanding tasks when your energy levels are high).

15. Avoid perfectionism Many executives struggle to find the right balance between perfection and minimum viable release. Make sure you are clear on the right result at this time. Avoid assumptions about how the output will be measured / evaluated and the cost of taking something to 100% at this time.

16. Use checklists, processes, technology and other mean to systemize or automate work (where it makes sense) this allows you to focus your attention where it matters most.

17. Leverage visuals and other methods (models, stories, and metaphors) to lighten the cognitive load.  Write it down – that helps to take it off your mind.

18. Mix things up so that your brain gets a break from the heavy-lifting work of problem-solving to do some simple tasks that you can do without thinking.  

  1. Imagine a project team had 12 members and 20 stakeholders – if all of these were to interact with each other just once a month then that would amount to almost 500 interactions i.e. emails, calls, IMs and so on. See: https://growthpitstop.com/2022/05/03/performance-interrupted/#scenario []
  2. Interruptions are often urgent but not necessarily important or connected to success.  Determine what is important by clarifying / agreeing priorities. []
  3. Managing distractions and interruptions is most essential in respect of complex work. When a task is complex it will likely require more time and attention, as well as greater creativity and skill. []
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