How to minimise disturbances take back control of your time

Are you forever being interrupted at work by people, emails and tech? Does it reduce the quality of your leadership? Here’s how to do something about it.

All of us remember those videos from the early days of lockdown, in which politicians, news correspondents and people on Zoom meetings were interrupted by children or pets. But interruptions at work aren’t a new thing. Whether you’re managing people from the office or at home, your life will be full of interruptions and sidetracks, losing you hours each working week and disrupting your flow. So frustrating! Here’s how to manage those disturbances and get back in control of your time.

When tech interrupts

Technology is the biggest intrusion for most leaders. Deal with it by disabling all the push notifications you can. A push notification, such as a beep, a pop-up, or a vibrate, is your phone telling you it has something new for you, whether that’s an email, a news article or whatever else. It interrupts you when it feels like it, not when you feel like it, leading to constant interruptions from emails, chats and MyHealthyGumsPal asking what you had for breakfast.

Search your phone settings for ‘notifications’, and turn off app notifications. My advice (echoed by other productivity experts) would be to turn them all off to start with, and keep it that way for at least two weeks. That’s long enough to break a habit, then if there are one or two you still can’t live without, you can reinstate it knowing it’s there for good reason.

I also recommend tech blackouts if you’re trying to get something done. Experiment with turning off the wifi on your computer to work on a document, presentation or report – or turn off your computer altogether and work on paper. This also allows you to work somewhere different, for a change of scene and a fresh burst of creativity.

When humans interrupt

If only human beings had a push notification you could turn off! Sadly, they don’t. It’s trickier to handle actual people interrupting us by lurking near our desk, phoning us or demanding our time in some other way, because we want to push back without upsetting them.

First, you must find the courage to set their expectations. If you can work out what it is you need from them, you can ask them for it. For example you could ask people to move from interrupting you in person to sending you a message instead. That way, if you’ve turned off notifications, they won’t be interrupting you at all and you can wait until you have space put aside to deal with what they want.

Second, you need to establish boundaries. You will have hours you’re prepared to work, and hours you’re not. AnnaMarie Houlis calls these ‘hard-nos’, which I really like. If you have time set aside for meetings, quiet work and so forth, make sure this is all in your diary, so colleagues know when you’re free. If people put a meeting in for a time you can’t make, you can decline it and explain why.

“You want to clearly communicate this upfront so that those with whom you work understand your hard-nos and, hopefully, make efforts to respect them. If they don’t, at least they won’t be blindsided when you say no.” AnnaMarie Houlis FAIRYGODBOSS

Third, keep your diary updated and encourage people to look at it before interrupting you. Establish working practices so if your diary says you’re busy working on a task, people will know you’d rather not be interrupted. Of course as a manager, you need to make sure you have some time that’s not marked as busy so you don’t get a reputation for being unavailable. You can show your team you like to work in this way by encouraging them to use their diaries in the same way, blocking themselves out on tasks when they don’t want to be interrupted.

If you can get a handle on both tech and people interruptions, you’ll find you have a lot more time in your week to focus on your priorities and achieve better personal effectiveness.

This is the latest in a series of articles I am writing about personal effectiveness. To read previous articles, visit my LinkedIn page.

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