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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  • Kathee Rebernak

    We work in an open-office environment as well, and some of us have signs that we place on our desk that say “Please come back later: I’m in the midst of a project.” We also block out time our Outlook calendars. I use black, which means “unavailable” when I’m in the midst of a time-sensitive project and absolutely need to focus. My colleagues are learning to check my calendar before popping over with questions.

    What I find most interrupting, however, is IM. As we have more than one office, it’s often how we communicate from office to office. I’ve taken to ignoring IMs until I’m at a stopping point (which takes much of the “instant” out of “instant messaging”). Recently, our director of operations asked that all requests be sent to her via old-fashioned email, as much for allowing her to read and respond on her own time as well as, I suspect, to maintain a consistent record of communications.

    I’ve also turned off email notifications, so I can check between meetings or at regular intervals rather than each time an email comes in. This has the added effect of “training” clients and colleagues to not expect an immediate response from me and reduces some of the anxiety that comes when I know an email has come in. An added benefit is that I provide higher-quality responses to clients for having taken more time to respond.


  • Oliver Dechant

    It can be a good idea just to ask for a few minutes to collect your thoughts. I agree there are few things as off putting as being blindsided, even things you know well can be just out of grasp if you were seriously concentrating on something else, everyone experiences it. Messages are the easiest to handle because your response can be staggered, the worst are cubicle lean-ins where you are essentially being put on the spot and even a slight stutter will give away that you aren’t perfectly ready to answer the question. Unless it’s a genuine emergency you should be able to make the argument that the interruptor will be better served once you are better prepared.

    Likely you’ll want to be known as someone who can be contacted with questions, not that person with the sign on their cubicle telling the world to take a hike but there are obviously exceptions to this. If you do know answers to problems that others seems to struggle with share them freely, write memos, discuss it in the hallway on your break time, scream it from the rooftop (consult with maintenance and maybe the police first).


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