As much as we would like to believe the contrary, interruptions are part of our daily routine. Whether they take the form of an impromptu meeting, a client service problem, a last minute proposal, personal demands, emails, or conversations with co–workers, these unplanned engagements or activities have tendency to rob us of our time throughout our days.
While the majority of these distractions that inadvertently consume our day can be eliminated, the fact remains, many cannot. However, do not despair, there is hope. And that is, if you can’t eliminate them, learn how to manage them better.
Here’s an example. Gerry, a client of mine who owns a large commercial furniture company called me the other day, sharing his frustration about not being able to get through his daily task list due to the constant barrage of interruptions from both customers as well as his staff.
Not wanting to be the ‘bad guy’ or send the wrong message to his staff that he doesn’t care, Gerry allowed his employees to interrupt him with their questions, problems and requests for help. Whether it was via email, the phone or them walking into his office and taking a seat in front of his desk, Gerry had a tendency to drop what he was doing in fear of any additional fallout or backlash if he did not address their needs immediately.
To quell this ongoing problem, I shared with Gerry a process to better manage the interruptions and the expectations people have of him so that Gerry can be the one in charge of his time and controlling his day rather than allowing all of the daily chaos, interruptions and distractions to do it for him.
The next time one of your employees come to you with a pressing issue, here’s a simple two step strategy to manage that interruption without being the bad guy.
Step One: The next time someone asks, “Do you have a few minutes?” Rather than respond with the “Yes” that’s going to quickly become a trigger point of contention for you, first respond by saying, “Cathy, I’m in the middle of completing something right now. More important, I want to make sure that whatever your concern is, I give it the time and the attention it deserves so we can successfully work through it together. While I know it’s important to you that you handle this now, is this something that demands immediate attention and must be handled right now or can it wait a bit?”
Lets face it. While we all want the help at the time we ask for it, the majority of issues may not be that time sensitive. Everything may be important to the person who is requesting your assistance and a statement I’m suggesting acknowledges rather than dismisses their request. While you are being sensitive to how they are feeling, some things can actually wait. The difference is, you’re making them feel really good about waiting! However, if you never ask, we never create the opportunity to distinguish between what can wait and what cannot.
Step Two: Once they tell you how pressing their matter is, you now have the choice to handle it in the immediate moment or table it for another time. You’ll find many requests can be postponed since they are not truly urgent emergencies. Then respond with the following suggestion. “Okay, then how about you and I discuss this tomorrow morning at 10am, when I know I can focus on this and give you my undivided attention without being distracted. Does that work for you?” Who’s not going to want their boss’s undivided attention? Notice what you are not doing. You’re not telling them “I’ll be done in five minutes. Lets talk then.” The fact is, most of the time you won’t be done in five minutes. Be realistic with what you have on your plate. Look at your schedule. Then, schedule this conversation at a time that you know will not be fiercely competing with other tasks that you need to handle which command your attention.
Taking this approach removes the risk of coming across as self righteous or “It’s my way or the highway.” You can now honor the person’s request, while respecting the boundaries you are setting to protect yourself from other people’s continued demands of your time. Stop competing with distractions and simply learn to manage them and the expectations people have of you.