Handling Interruptions Realistically

You’ve read the usual advice on career, productivity and self-developmentĀ  blogs when it comes to handling interruptions at work. Firewall your attention. Don’t check email. Stay off of Facebook and Twitter. All good suggestions, but they’re tautologies equivalent to saying that the best way to avoid distractions is to be undistractable. We’ve read that the typical office worker is interrupted every three minutes, that it takes 15 minutes to recover from each interruption, that interruptions cost the country $12 trillion in lost productivity (the number fluctuates radically). We get it: interruptions are not welcome.

The Flip Side of Interruptions

Interruptions may not be welcomed by the interrupted, but that doesn’t necessarily make them any less avoidable. Holding up your palm in response to your boss and saying, “Not now, I’m working” isn’t exactly a best practice. Sometimes you have to roll with the punches. Sometimes, what I consider an interruption is what my boss likes to call “employment”. In a perfect world, we would only have new opportunities presented to us in between finished tasks, but since that utopian synchronicity still eludes us, let’s examine how to allow interruptions the smart way.

Bookmark Your Work

Interruptions are frustrating, not just because the interrupter is inconsiderate, but because we risk losing track of what we we’re doing. Much of that anxiety is magnified by trying to track what we’re doing mentally instead of physically. When we rely on our short term memory as a placeholder, there’s a heightened need to get back to that task as soon as possible to avoid forgetting it.

The easiest way to allow the interruption is to “bookmark” the current work in one of two ways. If there’s no paperwork involved with the task (like a phone call, or something you’re doing on the computer), just write the task and throw it into your in-basket. If there is paperwork, just throw that into the in-basket. This assumes that you regularly process the contents of your in-basket.

If you don’t have an in-basket, or let it pile up, then hold the paper in your hand until you’re done with the interruption (e.g., answer the interrupter’s question, scheduled a meeting, produced a requested document, etc.), and don’t let go of it until then. Once you have a consistent, physical place to park your interrupted work, your brain will stop trying to issue yourself reminders of what you’ve put aside while the other person is talking to you. You can give the person your undivided attention.


Some ways to say “not now” are more elegant than others, such as , “That’s a good idea! I’d really like to go over this in detail once I get this purchase order out of the way. When’s a good time for you to discuss this?” You’ve pushed back by telling the interrupter (a) that he or she isn’t a nuisance (“That’s a good idea!”), (b) what you have something else to do at the moment (“this purchase order”), (c) that you’re committed to following up on the topic, and (d) that the discussion will happen later — all without being a jerk about it.

When a time is proposed, imply a suggested length for the meeting time: “So at 4:30, you’ll have 10 minutes to go over this?” Whether it’s 10 minutes or 30, it’s always a good idea when proposing a meeting to think for a couple of seconds about how long the meeting actually needs to take, rather than uttering an arbitrary or open-ended length. Shorter meetings are better to staying on topic.

The Two Minute Rule Revisited

You’ve probably heard of the Two Minute Rule: if you determine that an action will take less than two minutes, just do it now, even if it’s a low-priority item, assuming it needs to be done at all. These are items that would take longer to put on a to-do list and review later than they would to finish immediately.

Retrieving a requested document, find requested contact information, faxing or photocopying something, answering quick questions instead of offering to “think about” them later — these are all example of simple tasks that become more urgent if deferred. There’s less friction in handling a short request now than being nagged into it later. It’s also worth noting that just because a question or request is unexpected doesn’t mean it’s unimportant.

The other advantage of consciously asking if something can be done in under two minutes is that prevents you from getting lured into vaguely longer actions. If someone asks you to set a meeting, you can pick a time and email the rest of your team in less than two minutes. If someone asks you to determine the agenda of the next meeting, you’re probably better off responding, “That’s a great idea! I’d really like to go over this in detail . . “, and set a time to discuss it. Or you may decide to bookmark your current work and discuss it now. The main principle to keep in mind is that how you decide to respond to interruptions is always under your control to some degree.

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