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Interruptions are an everyday part of working life. Whether they come in the form of unscheduled calls, or last minute meetings, or questions from a colleague, or new emails of “High Importance” demanding immediate attention, interruptions can mean the difference between getting your work done well and not getting anything done at all.

However, there is no way to completely stop interruptions. It’s not even something we at PEPWorldwide Asia would recommend; some interruptions have very good reasons for demanding your attention right there and then, whether it’s a critical update from a corporate partner regarding the project you’re collaborating on, a change in instructions from your team leader, or an emergency requiring your immediate attention.

You can, however, organise your work processes in such a way that it helps to minimise interruptions. Interruptions can be managed by implementing a few small changes to your working processes.

The first thing you have to do to begin minimising the amount of interruptions you receive is to identify the sources of your interruptions. From our experience in helping clients from across all the various industries, the three most common interruptions that everyone faces are calls, emails, and colleagues.

Emails

For emails, limit yourself to checking your inbox no more than three times a day. We recommend checking them once in the morning at the start of your day, after you have checked on your commitments for the day from your calendar; once after lunch; and once before you leave at the end of the day.

If an email can be answered in less than ten minutes, apply one of PEP’s basic principles: ‘Do it Now’! Get it out of the way and attend to it immediately instead of leaving the same email sitting back at the inbox. If it requires more time, decide right then when you will attend to it, committing a specific time to do it. The physical act of removing it from your inbox into the calendar will help you to maximize the use of your time better by planning when you will attend to the task.

The ultimate aim here is to stop yourself from giving your attention to emails that don’t actually need your immediate attention. You may have been emailed a new task but thinking about the contents of a new email while simultaneously trying to complete your current task would only make you feel overwhelmed and distracted.   

By stopping yourself from checking your email every ten to fifteen minutes, as some workers are prone to doing, you are allowing yourself to focus on the tasks you have at hand. You will have more control over your inbox as well as your workflow and your inbox will not end up dictating how you work.

Calls

For calls, it can be a little tricky. Calls often imply a certain amount of urgency. When people call, it’s usually because they need your input immediately. If you’re only receiving one or two calls per day, then perhaps it wouldn’t be a problem. In fact, depending on your role, sometimes receiving phone calls all day simply comes with the position!

However, if you find that you’re receiving multiple calls every hour and you’re simply unable to get anything done, PEPWorldwide Asia recommends a similar approach to managing your emails: set specific time slots where you would answer calls.

Take advantage of any “Respond With Text” function your smartphone is likely to have. If the calls are coming through your office phone, check if your office phones are able to take messages.

If you have important work that need you to focus and deadlines that you have to meet, consider removing yourself physically away from your work desk; work from a meeting room with no interruptions; or put away your mobile phone for a while; or inform your colleague to help take any messages that may come in while you focus at completing your important work.  You can always reciprocate the favor!

Remember that the ultimate aim isn’t to stop people from calling you; it’s to be able to answer and address all your calls without having them interrupt your work.  We are all knowledge workers and we need time to strategize and to get work done with minimal interruptions.

Colleagues

If you are in a leadership role, being asked for instructions, clarifications, or feedback from those you are leading is simply part of the job. Even if you are not in a managerial role, there are good, valid reasons why a colleague, or even your boss, might need to speak to you face to face.

Yet few things are as disruptive at the workplace as people popping by your workstation or desk unannounced. If their appearance is unexpected or unscheduled, then it is highly likely that they are interrupting time you had initially planned to use for something else.

To manage interruptions from colleagues, the first thing you have to examine is the culture at your workplace. Some of the workplaces and office spaces of today are specifically designed to encourage interactions between co-workers, whether they are open office plans or shared workspaces.

However, even in such settings, a culture of respect, where everyone acknowledges each other’s need for time to concentrate and focus on their respective responsibilities, can actually aid in stimulating the kind of creativity and collaborative spirit that such workplaces were initially supposed to produce.

After all, it gets very difficult to be creative and collaborative if no one is getting anything done. Thus, you and your colleagues have to agree to support and create a culture more conducive for work, one that includes fewer interruptions not just for yourself but for everyone.

Then, when it comes to your own time, schedule specific time slots where it is acceptable to walk-in and meet you face-to-face, a sort of daily open-door session. Perhaps you’d prefer to have this time after lunch, when you might have trouble focusing on brain-intensive tasks anyway. Or you might prefer to have it the two hours prior to lunch, which would give you enough time to follow up later on in the day, if the need arises. Maybe, an hour before lunch and an hour before the day ends works best for you.

Be flexible enough for certain people, be it your superior, your project partner, or that one new hire who needs extra attention for the time being. Ultimately, schedule in a time slot that works for you and your co-workers, inform your surrounding colleagues, and stick to the plan, which is to be able to talk to the people who need to talk to you without having them interrupting your work.

Interruptions often signal a need for communication, whether it’s over the phone, face-to-face, or via email. Technology, which has granted us access to rapid and instantaneous communication, has also made it easier for interruptions to occur. Without proper management, they can keep you from achieving maximum productivity and hinder you from peaking your performance.


About the Contributor:

Hidhir Razak is the Corporate Relations Manager of PEPWorldwide Asia. An ardent believer of the power of storytelling and its unique ability to bring people and communities together, Hidhir is a reader, writer, and researcher by training. His articles have appeared on The Middle Ground, Yahoo Singapore, and Poetry.sg while his creative works have appeared in numerous anthologies and collections in Singapore. He holds a Master of Arts degree from Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, where he specialised in English and Creative Writing.