How to get things done when everybody keeps interrupting you

You can’t avoid the workplace’s daily distractions and interruptions, but you can learn how to stop them getting in the way of real work, says Gihan Perera.

In our fast-paced, always-on world, interruptions and distractions are a fact of life. You’ll find plenty of advice about how to ‘manage’ other people who interrupt you, but you’ll always be fighting a losing battle that way. Instead of trying to control others, here are some practical ideas to take responsibility yourself and be proactive about interruptions and distractions.

Know what matters to you

There’s an old saying, ‘the devil finds work for idle hands’, and it’s just as true today. It’s easier to be interrupted and distracted when you don’t have a strong purpose and clear goals. Be sure you understand your team goals and organisation goals, be clear about your own role in achieving them and know what matters to you in your professional life and your career.

Know what matters today

Neen James, author of Folding Time, recommends you start each day by writing three things you want to achieve that day. Whenever something or someone interrupts you, check whether it’s more important or more urgent than those three things. If it is, do it—but get back to your three priorities as soon as possible.

If you achieve all three goals, you end the day feeling satisfied, despite the interruptions. If you end most days without achieving your three goals, use that as a sign to change your priorities.

Accept it as part of your job

Interruptions might be an essential part of your role. This is obvious if you’re working in an externally-facing role, such as answering inbound calls, greeting people at reception, or selling to customers in a retail shop. But it also applies in internal roles—for example, a manager assisting staff with their work. In this case, interruptions are normal, so re-frame your thinking about them.

Delegate effectively

That said, if you or your executive are constantly being interrupted by staff, it might be a sign you’re not doing your job properly. You might not be providing enough information, not giving staff enough authority, or not giving them enough training. The best leaders and managers can confidently say ‘I trust your judgement’ when they delegate work. If you can’t say this yet, determine what you need to do to get to that point.

Stop interrupting yourself

If your phone rings, dings, or vibrates for every email, text message, social media post or app notification, that’s your own fault. Most apps turn on notifications by default, so take back control and turn off these notifications. Even better, ruthlessly eliminate the services that don’t add value. Unsubscribe from group mailing lists, leave Facebook and WhatsApp groups, opt out of Slack channels, and politely ask to be removed from unnecessary reply all e-mails.

Choose the right channels

Classify all your communication channels as either ‘immediate’ or ‘deferred’, and treat these two groups differently. ‘Deferred’ (sometimes called ‘asynchronous’) communication doesn’t need other people there at the same time — for example, email and online groups. ‘Immediate’ (or ‘synchronous’) communication relies on other people being there to respond—for example, phone calls, and meetings, and SMS.

Many interruptions and distractions occur when people mix up these channels. For example, email should be deferred, so don’t send email if it’s something urgent. Also, don’t reply quickly to non-urgent email, because it builds an expectation of instant responses.

Which of these ideas can you use right now? Choose at least one idea from this list and apply it immediately.