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, e-mail, or conversations with your staff, these unplanned engagements or activities have a tendency to rob us of time throughout our day.
While the majority of these distractions that inadvertently consume our day can be eliminated, the fact remains that many cannot. However, do not despair; there is hope. And that is, if you can’t eliminate them, learn how to manage them better.
Robert, the owner of a residential remodeling 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, Robert allowed his employees to interrupt him with their questions, problems, and requests for help. Whether it was via e-mail, the phone, or face-to-face in his office, Robert had a tendency to drop what he was doing in fear of any fallout or backlash if he did not address their needs immediately.
To quell this ongoing problem, I shared a process with Robert to better manage the interruptions and the expectations people have of him. This way, he can be the one in charge of his time and his day rather than allowing the daily chaos, interruptions, and distractions to do it for him.
The next time someone comes to you with a pressing issue, here’s a simple two-step strategy to manage that interruption without being the bad guy.
The next time someone asks if 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 and want to be as responsive as I can to your request. I want to ensure that whatever you need, I give it the time and the attention it deserves so that we can successfully work through it together. While I know it’s important to you to handle this now, is this something that demands immediate attention and must be handled right away or can it wait a little bit?”
While we all want the help at the time we ask for it, the majority of issues may not be that time-sensitive. Everything is important to the person who is requesting your assistance, and the response I suggested acknowledges rather than dismisses their request. While you are being sensitive to how they are feeling, some things can actually wait. The difference is that you’re making them feel really good about waiting. However, if you never ask, you never create the opportunity to distinguish between what is urgent and what is not.
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: “OK then, how about you and I discuss this tomorrow morning at 10 a.m. 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’re not doing. You’re not telling them “I’ll be done in five minutes. Lets talk then.” The fact is that 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 plan this conversation at a time that you know will not be fiercely competing with other tasks that command your attention.
Taking this approach removes the risk of coming across as self-righteous or “It’s my way or the highway.” Now you can 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.
Keith Rosen is an executive sales coach, speaker, and best-selling author of many books, including Coaching Salespeople into Sales Champions. He was named one of the five most respected and influential executive coaches in the country by Inc. magazine and Fast Company. He can be contacted at 516-771-1444, firstname.lastname@example.org, or his Web site.