How to (Kindly) Manage Interruptions & Get More Done with 10 Helpful Strategies

One dog trying to work, another dog is interrupting

Are you getting your work done? Because right now, we’re likely all struggling with MORE interruptions.

Things have certainly changed over the last 6 months.

COVID has changed the way many of us work – and importantly – who might be with us while we’re working.

If you were already working from home, your partner, adult or school age children may be newly added to the mix.

And if you’re new to home-working you may have loved ones around you as well as additional factors. It’s easy when you’re not used to working from home to be distracted by chores, the lure of the television, checking the news, distractible snacking, perhaps the cat trying to lie down on your keyboard – and more.

And everyone has more to think about and plan – from grocery shopping to our social lives, and staying on top of the latest COVID restrictions or requirements.

So if it’s not other people interrupting us, it’s ourselves.

In this article I share the key for dealing with ALL interruptions, 3 helpful ideas for anyone to manage their interruptions better and 12 specific strategies to manage interruptions in the moment!

The Hidden Cost of Interruptions

Interruptions take us away from whatever we’re working on. When we need a break this can be a good thing, but at their worst interruptions cost us valuable time, our sense of “flow” or a wonderful creative thought. And sometimes interruptions lead us to forget something important…

Because whether it’s working from home, or running the home – it’s hard to get things done when we’re constantly being interrupted.

The average American worker has fifty interruptions a day, of which seventy percent have nothing to do with work. W. Edwards Deming

Various studies show that interruptions have a major toll. Not just on our time, but our productivity – and importantly our state of flow. It’s also been shown that there are additional consequences from an interruption – the cost of “getting back into it” or getting back to the same state of focus you were in before.

Specifically, research by Gloria Mark 1 found that a typical office worker:

  • Only has 11 minutes (on average) between interruptions and that it can take upwards of 25 minutes to get refocused again.
But not all interruptions are bad…

Of course we don’t want to label all interruptions as bad. Often an interruption is just the break we need – or may bring something important to our attention.

“It’s a fallacy that writers have to shut themselves up in their ivory towers to write. I have all these interruptions, three of which I gave birth to. If I was thrown for a loop every time I was distracted I could never get anything done.” Jodi Picoult

So we may not be able to (or want to) get rid of interruptions altogether, but we CAN learn to assess and manage our interruptions better.

First, the KEY to Managing ALL Interruptions: STOP!

Pause before you do – or say – anything!

  1. STOP, take a deep breath and evaluate.
  2. Then, ask yourself, “Is this interruption more important than what I’m currently doing?”

What you do next will depend on many things – including:

  • WHO the interrupter is
  • Is it URGENT – or not?
  • Whether the interrupter is a repeat offender
  • Who benefits from the interruption? And specifically how will YOU benefit?
  • Whether you’re currently in a state of flow etc.
Some surprising results from Compassion Research…

Just before I go into the interruption managing strategies I’m reminded of something Brene Brown discovered in her research: that the most compassionate people have the strongest boundaries.

Yes, you read that right:

The MOST compassionate people have the STRONGEST boundaries.


Because compassion starts with ourselves. If we’re worn out and not getting our own “stuff” done we’re going to be less happy, and importantly less effective when we help others…

So Here are 10 Specific Strategies to Help You Kindly Deal with Interruptions

1) Simply say “No”

This may not sound kind, but it’s definitely kind to one person – YOU.

And saying no can always be done kindly. We can say our “No” with a smile, kindness – and importantly without irritation or anger. With family we can make an effort to say “No” with love. But for this strategy, it’s important to keep it simple. Try:

  • “No. That doesn’t work for me” or
  • “No, I’m in the middle of something” or
  • “No, but thanks for asking/thinking of me”

When to use this strategy:

  • When the request is small.
  • When you’re super busy or are in a state of flow.
  • When there is a pattern of interruptions from this person.
  • When the interrupter is you!
Before saying “yes” to your interrupter, remember to ask yourself:
  • If I say “Yes” to this interruption, what will I need to say “No” to?

This questions helps you understand the consequences of this interruption to YOU.

2) Delegate the interruption

This strategy is an intentional deflection of the interruption. This could be delegating back to a family or team member or to someone you know would really enjoy – or even benefit from the experience of – dealing with the request.

Tip: Try saying, “I know John loves that kind of thing” or, “Jill would really benefit from the experience of doing that” – but be sure you have the other person’s best wishes in mind – and are not simply trying to get rid of the task.

Use this strategy when:

  • You can think of someone else who would enjoy the interruption or task
  • Someone would benefit from the experience of the “task”
  • You really value the person interrupting – or the interruption request – but are too busy to take it on yourself

3) Give it back to the interrupter

In essence this strategy is saying: I know you’re more than capable of handling this on your own.

The interrupter might need help – and be nervous or need encouragement (or permission) to do something on their own. And sometimes the interrupter may simply be being “lazy” or avoidant.

Tip: It’s easy to be kind to someone who’s a bit nervous. But remember to also be kind (maybe “Fiercely Kind”) with people who are trying to “palm something off” onto you. Fierce Kindness here means being kind AND firm!

When to use this strategy:

  • With a child who needs to learn to do something for themselves
  • With an adult who has depended on you for “too long”
  • With someone who repeatedly avoids responsibility
  • With someone who is nervous, but you think is capable of “going it alone”

4) Reschedule the interruption…

…Or request a time that suits for you. Try, “I’m just in the middle of something/a tight deadline. Can I get back to you tomorrow?” or, “I’m working right now, but I’m having a break in 30 minutes/we could look at this over lunch.” You could also ask the interrupter to schedule a meeting with you to discuss it.

Tip: Be careful how you use this strategy with a boss or “superiors”. It may be valid, especially if your boss interrupts a lot, but you’ll need to be a bit more flexible, and careful with what you say and how you say it.

When to use this strategy:

  • With peers and your staff at work
  • When you genuinely believe someone/something can wait
  • With children and adults who are at home with you while you’re working from home
  • When there is a pattern of interruptions from this person.

5) Ask your interrupter, “Is this urgent?”

A simple, easy to remember strategy. Just ask, “Is this urgent? Because I’m just in the middle of something.”

Remember to say this kindly, with a smile if you can.

This buys you a precious few seconds thinking time, and if you’re lucky may even get rid of the interruption altogether!

When to use this strategy:

  • Any time

6) Throw the ball back to the interrupter

Share what you’re doing and ask if the interrupter’s request is more important than what you’re working on. This is a good strategy if it’s your boss who is regularly doing the interrupting.

What you’re doing here is throwing the ball back into their court and asking them for the priority. You could say something like, “I’m currently working on _____. Which one do you think I need to focus on first?”

And obviously, as with all these strategies, keep your energy neutral and open so you don’t come across as irritated, angry or sarcastic (a guaranteed promotion-buster).

When to use this strategy:

  • With a boss or someone more senior who interrupts you when you’re working on something important
  • With someone who regularly interrupts you

7) Ask the interrupter for 5 minutes

This is a quick and easy response to an interruption. Who can argue with needing 5 minutes? Then use this time to make notes or wrap-up so you don’t lose where you are.

When to use this strategy:

  • Any time
  • With children or loved ones who really do need you, but can wait for those 5 minutes.
  • When the interrupter deserves your attention or when they remind you that you’ve forgotten something!

Important: Just because we may be genuinely needed – or even in the wrong – doesn’t mean we can’t give ourselves 5 minutes to get organized.

“First, let me finish. Then interrupt.” Brian Spellman

8) Offer the interrupter a set period of your time

Another helpful strategy at work – and at home – is to offer 5, 30, 60 minutes (or another period that suits you) to work on the interruption. After this, let your interrupter know they must schedule another time with you.

Try: “I have 5 minutes to take a quick look, but if you need more time you’ll need to schedule a meeting” or to a child try, “Hi sweetheart, I’ve been working hard haven’t I? How about I take a break for 30 minutes and we play for a bit before I go back to work?”

Use this strategy when:

  • You’re not in a state of flow
  • You need a break
  • When a loved one genuinely needs a little you time!
  • When a short period of your time might move the other person forward

9) Ask the interrupter to summarise in an email

Simply ask the interrupter to summarise their issue or request in an email – including what they want you to do about it. If you’re lucky, you may even find they will go away and deal with the issue themselves as this is quicker than writing it up!

This strategy helps the interrupter get clear about exactly what they want from you, which will help you decide more easily what to do about the interruption. For example you may be able to delegate or re-schedule the interruption for a time that works for you.

Use this strategy with:

  • Important, but non-urgent interruptions
  • Repeat interrupters
  • Interrupters who come with vague and unclear requests

10) Can this wait?

Another super simple – and very reasonable – strategy is to buy yourself some time. Simply to ask your interrupter to come back in 5/30 minutes/an hour.

Try something like, “Oh hello 🙂 I’m in a state of flow right now, can this wait for _____ minutes?”

You may find people figure things out for themselves, and if not, you’ve bought yourself valuable time to stay in flow, finish something up – or get into the right frame of mind.

When to use this strategy:

  • Any time
  • With colleagues at work
  • With repeat interrupters
  • With older children or adult loved ones at home
Kindness and Interruptions!

Important: Remember that kindness and respect are essential – whether you’re dealing with yourself or someone else.

It can help to think of it like this:

Say “Yes” to the person, but “No” to the task.

Are you a Self-Interrupter?

Perhaps you notice you’re heading again to the snack draw, tempted to check your email, the latest news, sports results, what your friends are doing on Facebook, that beep on the your phone…

Try saying something out loud to yourself like, “No, that can wait” or, “No, that can wait until lunchtime/after work etc.”

Remember, you’re not saying no forever, just no for now!

And if needed, take a moment to agree with yourself that you’ll attend to your self-interruption later eg. I’ll look at that message at lunchtime/browse YouTube this evening – when I’m not working.

And lastly, why not try to prevent the interruption in the first place?

Here are 7 ideas for when you really need to focus:

  1. Go somewhere else – or somewhere unusual – where you won’t be, or are less likely to be, interrupted.
  2. Close an actual door between you and the outside world. Closed doors signify a need for privacy or focus.
  3. Tell the people around you ahead of time that you need ____ mins of uninterrupted time for a specific day/time.
  4. Put on headphones and listen to non-distracting music. This can put you in a super-focused zone, and the headphones are also an unconscious signal to others that you are working – creating a barrier to their interruption.
  5. Close all apps you’re not using. This gets rid of distractions like social networking sites, email programs and any ‘pingers’.
  6. Turn your personal cellphone off or switch it into do not disturb mode.
  7. If you have a landline that could ring and interrupt you, put your answer machine on.

Wrap-Up

Interruptions are often frustrating, yet they can also be stimulating – giving us a welcome break.

To get what you need to get done you need to effectively handle your interruptions. And to handle your interruptions more effectively you need to stop reacting. Instead take a deep breath, and give yourself a few short moments to evaluate how and what you’re doing, before making any response.

Then (and only then) will you be able to make the best decision for you – perhaps using one of the 10 strategies above!

“The major problem of life is learning how to handle the costly interruptions.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

Fierce Kindness is about learning to be kind – no matter what.

All that’s left is to decide what level of kindness to employ.

When dealing with interruptions, depending on what and who is interrupting you, you may need to employ:

  1. “Loving and tender” kindness (for a young child who doesn’t understand why mommy or daddy isn’t available for cuddles)
  2. “Regular” Kindness (for colleagues, friends and other adults)
  3. “Fierce Kindness” (a firm kindness for repeat offenders and inconsiderate interrupters)
Remember: “Change the world, start with you!”

If you liked this article on Managing Interruptions, you may also like:

Reference

1 Gloria Mark, as quoted in this New York Times article by Bob Sullivan and Hugh Thompson “Brain, Interrupted

Image of Jack Russell being interrupted wearing tie by Javier Brosch via Shutterstock

Image of An interruption to manage – happy white dog by kwon hyuk via Shutterstock

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