How to Minimize Interruptions When You’re Working

By Ali Luke

May 3, 2011   •   Fact checked by Dumb Little Man

Distracted at work

Have you ever been right in the middle of something – a complicated email, a tricky paragraph of a report, a hunt for some vital figures – only for your concentration to be shattered?

Maybe your work day seems to be a string of interruptions. Maybe your colleagues want to chat constantly, or people keep phoning with trivial issues, or your housemates can’t understand that you want to be left alone to work on a college assignment.

You’ll never be able to eliminate interruptions altogether – but you can do a lot to minimize them.

Here’s how:

  1. Look Unavailable
    If you have an office with a door, keep it shut when you don’t want interrupting. It’s a simple visual cue to would-be visitors – and you’ll also keep out any noise from passers-by. If you’re working at home, ask your family or flatmates to avoid interrupting you when the door is closed.

Of course, you might not have a whole room of your own to work in. Try wearing headphones (even if you don’t have any music playing) – this often makes people think twice about interrupting you. If you’ve got a hands-free headset, you could even pretend to be on the phone while working.

  • Let People Know You’re Busy
    I know this seems obvious, but how often do you actually tell people that you want some uninterrupted time? At home, this might mean explaining to your partner and/or kids that you’re going to be working on your novel for an hour.

At work, get in the habit of telling potential interrupters, “I’m right in the middle of something. Can I get back to you in fifteen minutes?” Chances are, they’ll be happy to wait – and they may well go and find some other solution which doesn’t involve waiting for you!

  • Set an Example
    If you want other people to respect your time, be respectful of theirs. Try not to interrupt colleagues – and when you do need to have a conversation with someone, start off with “Is this a good time?” If you can see their calender, heck, use that an schedule 30 minutes at some point later in the day. Don’t use work time to chat, unless you want your colleagues to assume that you’ll always be happy to stop what you’re doing to listen to the latest office gossip.

You might find that several colleagues (or other people in your household) are getting frustrated by interruptions. If so, look for some way to make things easier for everyone – perhaps by spending the mornings on focused work, and encouraging more discussion and collaboration in the afternoons.

  • Don’t Answer Calls and Emails Straight Away
    Most of the interruptions in your day probably don’t come from colleagues or housemates who drop by your desk. They come from people phoning or emailing.

Unless you work in a job which requires it, there’s no rule which says that you need to answer your phone as soon as it rings. Further, just because they call it “Instant Messaging”, you don’t have to respond this instant! You can let it go to voicemail and you can let your chat window blink for a bit. You can switch off your mobile, too.

The same goes for emails: you don’t have to leave your inbox constantly open. You’ll work much more efficiently if you process emails in batches, rather than trying to deal with them as soon as they come in.

  • Work Early/Late in the Day
    This is a bit of a radical step, but worth considering. Can you shift your working hours so that you avoid interruptions for at least part of the day?

If you get into the office at 7am, for instance, you’ll have at least an hour or two to work before most of your colleagues arrive. If you stay up late at home and write your essays after the kids are in bed, you’re much less likely to be interrupting than if you try to work on Saturday afternoons.

What tips and tricks have you used to avoid interruptions when you need to concentrate? Share your ideas with us in the comments…

Ali Luke

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