Reader Question: How Can I Handle Interruptions When I’m Concentrating?

When you can't focus at workA reader asks:

What is the best approach for handling interruptions (from colleagues or bosses) at work when you are either busy, in the middle of something else, or just plain unprepared because your mind is on a different project? 

I sometimes find myself flustered when colleagues or managers stop by without a warning to discuss something that’s on their mind when I’m in the middle of something else. It makes me feel blindsided or incompetent when I don’t have a straight answer for it because I was unprepared for it. And since I work in an open space, I do not have the luxury of closing my office door or not answering the phone.

Some people seem to do just fine with interruptions, while for other people (like me, and apparently like you), it throws off us and makes us do a worse job on both the original work we were engaged with and the item that interrupted us.

There are a few things that will help you manage these interruptions better:

1. Be straightforward

It’s often completely fine to say, “I’m actually just in the middle of finishing something. Can I stop by your office later, when I’m at a better stopping point?”

With people who aren’t your manager, this is nearly always appropriate; after all, you’re responsible for controlling your own time, not being at their beck and call, and if you judge that the document you’re in the middle of reviewing is a higher priority, then it’s reasonable – even necessary – for you to speak up about that. (And if you do it enough, you can even train people to start asking you, “Is this a good time?” … or to just stick their non-time-sensitive questions in email to begin with.)

And for interruptions with questions that you’re simply unprepared for, it’s fine to say, “I’d need to review my notes on that before I could give you an answer with certainty. Let me do that later today and I’ll get back to you.”

2. Create a signal to indicate that you’re busy

Depending on whether it would be appropriate in your particular office culture, consider using a signal to let people know that it’s a bad time before they’ve interrupted. Some people will post a sign in their cubicle entryway reading “on deadline” or “work block — free at noon” to let others know not to interrupt unless it’s crucial.

3. Recognize that some of this just goes with the territory

While you should absolutely let colleagues know when you’re busy and can’t be interrupted, you won’t be able to manage interruptions out of existence entirely. Some of them are part of the package of having a job. And that’s especially true when it’s your manager or other higher-ups doing the interruptions; in those cases, you’re often going to get better outcomes if you try to accommodate their schedule rather than asking them to work around yours. So while it’s smart to try to minimize disruptions, it’s also good for your mental health (and job security!) to recognize that some of them – not all, but some of them – are simply part of work life.














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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