How to Protect Your Time From Long-winded Colleagues, Callers, and Other Interruptions

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.”

The key point? Be nicely assertive and don’t hand control of your time over to others!














Alison Green

Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.

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  • Anon

    Tone of voice is also key. Your tone alone can convey that you need to conclude the conversation.

    [Reply]

    Alison Green - Ask a Manager Reply:

    Yes!  Also certain phrases that signal “we’re wrapping up here” — like “well, thanks for calling!”

    [Reply]

  • Guest

    We have someone in our office who is very long-winded and is an extrovert.  It’s hard to get away from her sometimes.  There have been a few times where I’ve said, “Sorry, but I really need to take care of XYZ and I can’t talk right now.”  Other times, I hate to say it, I’ve resorted to pickup up the phone and dialing an automated system when I see her coming down the hall.  Heads her off before she gets to my office.

    [Reply]

    Alison Green - Ask a Manager Reply:

    I will admit to making fake calls when I’m outside my house and see my neighbor coming.

    [Reply]

  • Urbancalgirl

    What if the long-winded person is your boss? My boss will consistently turn what should’ve been a 5-minute meeting into 45 minutes because she tells stories.

    [Reply]

    Alison Green - Ask a Manager Reply:

    That’s the worst!  You call still try some of the tactic above, but it also might be worth having a big picture conversation with her about it. (I have a post here with some advice on that: http://www.askamanager.org/2011/08/how-can-i-make-my-boss-stop-talking-to-me.html )

    However, if she’s long-winded about WORK-related stuff (as opposed to chit chat), then you probably need to just suffer through it, unfortunately.

    [Reply]

  • Jsygirl Esq

    I have found that the long-winded person in my office likes to chat in the early evening when many of my colleagues have left.  I tried being polite, assertive, got up and actually walked into the ladies room.  Nothing except the closed ladies room door worked – and that takes me away from getting the work done.  So I changed my schedule.  I now come in earlier, leave earlier and finish my work at home.  

    [Reply]

    Alison Green - Ask a Manager Reply:

    That’s definitely an option for dealing with it, but have you tried just saying, “I can’t talk right now, I need to finish this so I can leave”?

    [Reply]

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