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How to manage interruptions when working

by Amanda Collins

Ever had that day at work where you just got nothing done? Random email requests, distractions and teammates managed to throw you off onto a dozen winding side tracks, while your own ‘To Do’ list sat sadly undone.

We’ve all been there. And in truth, it’s impossible to stay 100% on track all day, every day.

According to experts, the key to productivity at work lies in managing distractions, rather than letting them rule your day.

So just how do you manage this balancing act?


Plan for distractions

Distractions will happen. So one of the best ways to deal with them is to plan your time to allow for them. When you plan your day, leave some wiggle room.

For example, if you estimate a project will take two hours to complete, leave aside two and a half hours, that way if something unexpected crops up, you have a short window of time to deal with it.

Map your day

Plan your day so that you have certain hours set aside for certain tasks. An hour in the morning for emails, followed by two hours of work on a particular project, etc. Remember to factor in wiggle room.

Know the tasks that need your absolute attention, and plan for “do not disturb” hours. To keep these hours distraction-free, you could put up an “unavailable” sign on your desk, or pop your headphones in, anything to signal politely to others that you are busy.

Batch your email and phone time

As part of your planning, set aside certain times when you will respond to emails and phone calls. Don’t respond to them outside of these hours.

To help you communicate your plans, you could set up an automatic email response letting people know that you only check your email at particular times.

When they just can’t take the hint

Sometimes people will insist on your time when you aren’t free to give it just because they are impatient, and sometimes emergencies really do crop up. It’s important that you understand the difference.

When teammates pop around with requests, work out quickly if this is actually business urgent, or something that can wait.

When requests happen in your “unavailable” hours, you could try out the following lines:

  • Sorry, I’m totally swamped at the moment, can we schedule a meeting later today to talk about this?
  • I’ve only got a few minutes to help out at the moment.
  • I’ve got a bunch of urgent projects I’m working on today, but I have some time to look at this tomorrow if that is convenient?

If the interrupter comes over for a face-to-face chat, don’t engage in small talk. Be kind, but help them to reach their point quickly. Don’t ask them to sit down, or encourage them to linger.

co-workers and interruptions

Share your calendar

Having blocked out your day in your calendar, share it with your teammates so they know when they can contact you, when you are busy and when you have slots of time.

Sharing your calendar is a polite, friendly way of letting everyone know where you’re at, and it can help to stop people feeling put out or cranky, when they know at the click of a button, whether you are free to help out or have a chat.

Get on top of temptation

At some point in our lives we’ve all managed to lose an hour or two on a Google binge. We start looking up one thing, and end up on a winding trail from kitten videos to the best hamburger places in the world. It happens.

To stop temptation, install an app like Leechblocker on your computer. With this you can actually block your own access to your favourite sites, including Facebook.

Also, turn your phone off or onto silent and keep it in your drawer, pocket or bag. Out of sight, out of mind.


If people really won’t leave you alone, and the distractions are coming in thick and fast, it may be a good idea to pack up your desk, and move to work in a quieter location for a few hours, or even the whole day.

Less distracting spots could include a meeting room, your lounge room, a cafe, or even a park somewhere.

work in the park

Take a break now and then

If you just plough through your work with a single burning focus day in, day out, the chances are that you may burn out.

Sometimes taking five minutes out to chat about the latest episode of The Bachelor, or to compare weekend stories can be the best medicine for a stressed mind.

So make sure you give yourself permission to have a chat, go for a walk and get rid of the cobwebs now and then.

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