When you’re racing to get something done on a deadline and you get interrupted by a long-winded colleague or telephone caller, do you: (a) Let them talk, trying to politely hint that you don’t have much time, or (b) Say, “I’m actually short on time right now. Could I call you back?”
Far more people do (a) than (b) — because people want to be nice and aren’t sure how to nicely protect their time, or if it’s even possible to do it nicely. They often get so focused on wanting to be nice to the caller or visitor that they forget that — when at work — their obligation is to use their time in the ways that are most effective.
Here are some ways to protect your time without being rude:
1. Remember that your obligation is to be polite, but it’s not to allow someone to cut into time that you could be better spending on something else. You’re not doing anything wrong by asserting that you can’t talk.
2. White lies are made for this situation. Say “I’ve got to run to a meeting that’s about to start” or “I’ve got to grab another call” or “I’m on deadline.” If the interruption is in person, stand up with some papers in your hand. Sometimes this alone signals that you have something else to do. If the signal doesn’t take, say, “I’ve got to run these down the hall.”
3. Set a time limit for the conversation at the very start, such as “I’ve only got a minute to talk” or “I appreciate the phone call but only have a second to talk.”
4. If the person ignores your attempt to end the conversation, repeat yourself again firmly — right away, not after letting them talk on for another five minutes!
5. Don’t be afraid to interrupt a long-winded person who doesn’t pause to take a breath or let you get a word in. Remember, you are responsible for how you spend your time; you can’t hand that control over to someone else.
You can apply these principles in other ways too. If you’re a manager who finds it hard to focus because an employee interrupts you with questions throughout the day, ask the person to save up their questions and ask them in bunches. Or if someone asks you to do something right away that’s a lower priority than what you’re working on, say “I need to finish this first, but I’ll get to it as soon as I can.”