Were you interrupted today in the office? How many times? Did the phone ring often? How many times did you respond to a ‘new’ e-mail? Did a colleague come by to update you on last weekend, just as you picked up the phone? Did someone have an “emergency” and need your help?

Interruptions cost us time and productivity, which translate into money. While you can’t eliminate them entirely, you can manage them and limit their frequency or duration.

In this chapter we will deal with certain types of interruptions and how to deal with them:

Handling telephone interruptions efficiently

  • Managing personal visitors comfortably
  • Handling the talkative interrupter
  • Managing e-mail interruptions
  • Interruptions in an open-plan office

A study conducted by examining the work behaviour of managers, financial analysts, software developers, engineers, and project leaders over 3 days found is that the average amount of time that people spent on any single event before being interrupted or before switching was about three minutes.


The phone rings and it must be answered. Whether it is a necessary call or not, it must be answered. We cannot predict when it rings and the chances of it ringing when we are in the middle of doing something important is pretty high. So what do we do? Submit to the inevitable or take control? Here are some tips that will help you deal with telephone interruptions

  • Are you the right person for the job? Find out if the person asking for help really needs you or just needs someone. Ask questions to determine if he is asking you simply because you are most likely to say yes. If so, suggest someone who can handle it, or better yet, offer suggestions of how he can do it himself.
  • Screen your calls. Screening calls (by scanning who’s calling first or having someone else answer your calls for you) allows you to judge who to answer and when to call back. If you don’t have anyone to answer your calls, or don’t have caller id on your phone, you can  put your phone on voice mail. Voicemail allows you to check calls when you choose to allocate time, rather than being interrupted. When using voice mail ensure you leave a message that indicates how long you’ll be away from the phone; who to contact in an emergency and tell them to leave a clear message of their requirements so that you can prioritise their requests before calling them back.
  • When you answer the call let the other person know that you’re under a time pressure before you engage in conversation, e.g. ‘I’d love to talk to you but I’ve literally got only 5 minutes to finish off this e-mail to my client. Can I call you back?’
  • Give the call a time limit and stick to it. You are in control and can finish the call when you feel you’ve spent enough time on the issue. Also, don’t be afraid of setting a time for a call back – at your convenience, of course.

To avoid socialising use your fax machine or email. Some calls do not have to be made.

Action points

There are some issues which you need to consider before considering whether to call, visit or e-mail

  • Do you need to contact them at all?
  • Can you sort out the issue or problem satisfactorily without contacting them? What are all the costs involved in writing an e-mail? From the time taken to draft, revise and type it, through to the time taken to reply and respond if questions arise?
  • Would a phone call or personal visit be more effective?

There are several polite but assertive ways to end a call. For example, using the phrase ‘Sarah, I’ll not waste anymore of your valuable time’ works very well.  Other phrases include ‘John, before we hang up there’s just one issue I need an answer to’ which allows you to make sure your key issue is answered before hanging up. Also useful when you need to finish quickly is ‘Karen, I’m going to have to leave it there as my boss was expecting something from me 5 minutes ago’. These and other phrases are dealt with in chapter 10 Communication.


Change your reputation

One of the reasons people interrupt us is simple. It’s because they can! We allow them to constantly interrupt us by responding eagerly to their requests and always saying yes to their demands. By doing so we unconsciously create a behavioural pattern between them and you on the lines of ‘I’ll ask Warren. He’ll always say yes’. If you wish people to treat you differently you’re going to have to adopt behaviours that people see as more assertive and confident. Then they’ll think twice about interrupting you rather than not thinking about your needs at all. Start by saying no or delaying requests from people who interrupt you the most. Be aware that you must determine the validity of their requests before ‘just saying no’ as this time, they may really need your help.

Prioritise each interruption

Let’s face it, no matter how hard you try, it’s impossible to eliminate interruptions. Since they can’t be avoided altogether, the key is to decide ahead of time which types of interruptions are worth tending to immediately and which requests you can deal with later. Then, when you are interrupted, you will have already decided if you will tackle that issue now or later.

 You’re only guilty if you’ve done something wrong

We usually say yes to requests because we feel guilty turning the other person down. Remind yourself that it’s OK to tell someone you would like to hear about his vacation but you just don’t have the time now. You are allowed to say “not now” when a colleague wants to chat. Also, if a colleague or some one from another department asks you to do something because it’s easier than him learning how to do it on his own, there is nothing wrong with declining. Being assertive is one of the keys to dealing with interruptions; you can find more information relating to assertiveness techniques in chapter 9 on Assertiveness.

Schedule regular meeting times for communication

If you work closely with someone, a planned, short meeting once or twice a day can be one of the best time savers in the world–no more having to interrupt each other every ten minutes to exchange information.

 Stop them before they start

When a colleague interrupts you, stop her before she gets too far into her issue, and ask how long it will take. Then you can decide if you will deal with it now or later.

You can use phrases such as ‘I think that this is going to take longer than a few minutes to resolve and I promised Dave I’d see him about the budget meeting. What I suggest we do is meet later at your desk’.

Do you really have to deal with this?

When a colleague comes to you with an urgent issue, ask if it needs to be taken care of immediately or if it can wait. If it’s an emergency, determine whom it’s an emergency for. You, the client, the boss or just them? For example, if a colleague wants to complete a project early to impress her boss it might be an emergency for her, but it’s not for you.

Create information templates and guidelines

Make a list of the most common questions or issues that create interruptions. Then document the answers, processes or “how-to” templates and guidelines. If you’re the one everyone comes to when they’re confused about a particular policy or how to use a software program, write up an explanation, instructions or guidelines. Provide them as a handout to your colleagues, send them in an email, or post them on your company’s intranet site. If your customers are always contacting you for the same information, train others in your office, particularly your frontline staff, to provide answers or resources. Post a “Frequently Asked Questions” page or similar document on your web site.

If you have an unexpected visitor:

  1. Establish at the start why they have come to see you. Formalise your greeting with a ‘Hi, what can I do for you?’ or ‘How can I help?’. This will help to pre-empt the social chat that accompanies most impromptu greetings.
  2. Be assertive – don’t be afraid to say ’No’. Remember it’s the task you’re saying no to, not the person. The assertive belief is that: “Other people have the right to ask; I have the right to say no.”  Where the grade or definition of your job limits your right to refuse, you still have the right to state the difficulties the request will cause – succinctly. Show warmth and attentiveness so that your refusal is not seen as a rejection of the individual, but simply a refusal of the request
  3. Stand when they enter the room, so that they also remain standing. Not an easy thing to master but it means that you’re not on a lower level than them (and at a positional disadvantage) plus meetings that are conducted upright are far shorter than when both parties get settled and comfortable. (Interruptions in open plan offices is covered in detail below.)
  4. Set time limits to your discussion with a reason. ‘I can only give you two minutes as I have to meet Simon about the project meeting’.
  5. Avoid engaging in small talk. Speak steadily and with warmth, especially with short replies. Acknowledge whoever has made the request that their request is valid but you’re not able to comply, e.g. “It’s kind of you to ask, but I don’t wish to go to that meeting as the issues I want to discuss aren’t on the agenda”. Give a reason if you think it will be helpful to you and the other person but do not invent an excuse.
  6.  You may also ask the interrupter to summarise briefly what the problem is if they seem hurried or panicked. People in a panic may not express their point as well as they should causing more confusion when you’re trying to determine the issues. Phrases like; ‘What’s the key problem here?’ or ‘What are the three things that need to happen now?’ will help to control the interrupter.
  7. Ask for clarification or more time if you need to check things out. Ask for more information, if you need it, before deciding whether or not to refuse the request, but not simply as a way of avoiding making a decision. Also question the ‘importance and urgency’ of a task before acting on it. ‘When’s the last possible time you need this delivered’ is a great way of getting the other person to divulge the true delivery time as they will have to tell you why it’s important but also when they will be requiring it.
  8. Avoid “I can’t” (often untrue) and profuse apologies as though you’re not responsible for your own actions. Instead, say: “I won’t”, “I’m not prepared to’ or ‘I’m not going to”. Ensure you sound confident when you say this as the other person, detecting weakness in your reply may push a bit harder.
  9. Some people have a ‘Do not disturb’ sign on their desk. Works well if you use it sparingly as it gives a signal to your colleagues that you are under a time constraint. Remember to remove it though if you want to speak to your colleagues again!!!! If you have a PA or administrator, agree a clear policy about who can have access to you and who else they should deal with. You may even agree with a colleague that they deal with any enquiries for a few hours (as long as you promise to return the favour when they are busy).