How to Stop Interruptions

We interrupt this productive work day to bring you this special message on how to avoid distractions.

Hey, you busy? Sorry to interrupt, but I have some ideas on what you can do about all those distractions and interruptions getting in the way of your work. Let’s review what’s keeping you from finishing that report.

Sources of Distraction

Well, there’s me. But you asked me to give you some ideas. I had to finish that quarterly report first. But I’m ready to help.

By the way, have you noticed how much is going on here? I’ve been in quieter football stadiums.

And the phone won’t stop ringing. It’s amazing. It’s like all those people who think your job is to help them. Don’t they know you have work to do?

But if they’re not calling you, they’re sending e-mail. It’s a never-ending to-do list.

Speaking of to-do lists, here comes El Hefe. He either wants to tell us about his weekend, give us something more to do or find out why you’re not done yet. Excuse me, I have to look busy.

With all this going on, how do you get the time to get things done?

It’s important to realize this is pretty much fixable. Much of what you’re complaining about are work-related interruptions. Your job is getting in the way of doing your job. You need to figure out really what is your job.

How Much Uninterrupted Time Do You Need?

Start by estimating how much time it takes to do everything. That includes the tasks generated by interruptions. If you don’t have enough time in the day, it’s time for a conversation with El Hefe. Lay it out, and make sure you two come to an agreement on priorities. The problem comes when he says it’s all important. Then we need to have a separate conversation.

Even if you can fit it all in one day…. Wait a second. If that’s true, why are we even talking? You’re getting it all done. Just prioritize it all and stop bothering me. I have more important things to do.

So do you. Thanks to your priority list and time estimates, you can plan your day. Find time slots for your important tasks that have fewer interruptions. Then avoid phone calls and e-mail. You have two options for doing this.

Cone of Silence

Let me tell you one I learned when I started. I got this from Tom, who was in accounting back when I started work here. I didn’t have the Internet to distract me in those days. The phone was the major time suck. And Tom had this system. There were no direct lines to anyone’s desk. All calls went through a receptionist’s phone who didn’t send any calls through to the accountants. It was accounting – not known for its life or death situations. So she took down messages. The accounting staff then used two hours in the middle of the day to return the calls.

I can mimic this now by letting everything go to voicemail and ignoring e-mail for specific blocks of time. Or I can pick times that are naturally light in interaction. I may come in a bit early before the rest of the world figures out I’m sitting by a phone. Or maybe no one calls at lunch. This may mean I’m eating at the desk, lunching early or late. And I resist the Internet for a block of time.

Speaking of the Internet. How many distractions are you creating? You’re going to have to take responsibility for all the times you check Facebook and Twitter. Surfing for baseball scores and stats isn’t helping either. We all need to take breaks. But you have to honestly be aware of how much you distract yourself.

But it may not prevent the rest of us from bothering you. What you need is a cone of silence to descend upon your cubicle.

If facilities isn’t going to install one, invest in a pair of good, noise canceling headphones. They will help filter out the background noises that may distract you.

Problem is that what you listen to may be just as distracting as your environment. This is up to you. Younger minds have better luck processing multiple sources of input. But pick something that can be ignored. New age rain forest sounds are better than motivational podcasts. Or don’t listen to anything. Just seeing you with headphones may discourage coworkers from disturbing you. If it does, it couldn’t be that important.

But you know who isn’t going to be discouraged. It’s El Hefe’s job to disturb you. So you’re going to have to remind him about your prioritization conversation. This may take some training to work. I mean you’re going to have to train and manage him.

Take it on the Road

If the headphones aren’t deterring distractions, you need to start looking for remote locations. Scout for unused offices with computers. Disappear at key times behind closed doors. If you have access to a laptop and can access the network anywhere, think about using conference rooms. Schedule meetings just for yourself to make sure no one wants the room.

Since we downsized, there are a ton of spaces on the fourth floor. I forward the phone to my cell phone if I need to be reachable. The trouble is that it’s not totally isolated. Someone usually wanders by and asks me what I’m up to. It’s not perfect but it’s a good place to hide a bit.

That coffee place just got free wi-fi so I can work on some reports outside the building too. Sometimes I work in exile at home too. But distractions there can be just as bad. So that’s another discussion.

But this can be tricky. If you disappear, we might not assume you’re working. You have to make it apparent that you’re not playing hooky. This can be accomplished with communication. But try to let us know what you’re doing without giving away your secret workspace.

But communication can help with your disruption deterrence. To be honest we don’t know if you’re actually working on a report or your Facebook page. If we think you’re not doing anything important, we’re not going to hesitate to talk to you. Let us know nicely what’s on your plate.

Now that I’ve taken up enough of your time, I will let you get back to work.

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Cubicle Curtis is the guy sitting at the next workstation. He's been in this office longer than anyone else, so he's a valuable resource of who does what and how to get things done. Before this job, he has worked just about every job between pizza delivery and accounting. Now, he's all about getting the job done and helping you figure out how to survive yours.


  1. Michael Struwig on the 29th September

    I’ve got to agree fully, the suggestion about just finding a quiet place to work is a great idea.

    I just sometimes run into problems where the people I’m trying to avoid getting distracted by think its something personal – but like you said, communication should solve that problem.

    Thanks so much for the post, enjoyed it.

  2. Andrew on the 29th September

    Some great tips; I might have to get a pair of noise-cancelling headphones.

    And, BTW, as a fellow writer, I must say that I dig the way you’ve written this; an awesome piece!

  3. Joseph Lewis on the 29th September

    It’s spelled “El Jefe”

  4. Michelle Burleson on the 29th September

    This is great… and I was reading as a distraction from my *real work* as I was thinking to myself that I’d turn the phone off for 5 hours today. What’s the worst that can happen… besides all of my worst client nightmares?

  5. Daquan Wright on the 1st October

    The web can be your greatest friend (data) and your worse enemy (too much data). The key is finding a balance. I like the quote “play hard, work hard.” People really don’t work best when multi-tasking, concentration plays a major role in how something turns out for me. I say separate play from work, setup a schedule and make sure there are specific times you check your e-mail or answer your calls (within reason). If you know time management, then the internet can be a powerful tool for you without the backlash.

  6. John Gallagher on the 26th October

    If you’re on the Mac, there’s a wonderful little app called Concentrate that helps you stay focussed – it blocks Twitter, Facebook etc and Mail for a specified time period. I use it all the time and it’s wonderful! Please do check it out.

  7. Annie M on the 30th October

    I use this special productivity system that was created specifically for creative people – it helps me set aside time to work on one thing at a time, and to time-block for important, time-sensitive projects. Here’s the website:

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