how can I handle interruptions when I’m concentrating?

by Ask a Manager on November 30, 2012

A reader asks:

What is the best approach for handling interruptions (from colleagues or bosses) at work when you are either busy, in the middle of something else, or just plain unprepared because your mind is on a different project?

I sometimes find myself flustered when colleagues or managers stop by without a warning to discuss something that’s on their mind when I’m in the middle of something else. It makes me feel blindsided or incompetent when I don’t have a straight answer for it because I was unprepared for it. And since I work in an open space, I do not have the luxury of closing my office door or not answering the phone.

I answer this question at the Intuit QuickBase blog today. You can read it here.

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{ 57 comments… read them below or add one }

Josh S November 30, 2012 at 11:45 am

At one (sales) company where I worked, we had signs we could put up across the entry to our cubes that said some version of “I-Time”. Basically, it was a “I’m really focused on [cold calling/closing sales/research], and don’t want to be interrupted til [Time]” sign.

I don’t know if that would fly in your workplace. I think it only worked in ours because everyone was in on the idea. But 90% of the interruptions are things where an email can be sent (and responded to later), or another person can be tapped for advice.

Consider putting up a sign that says, “Hi! I’m concentrating on a project right now and would like to avoid interruptions. I’ll be available to talk at [time], or you can email me and I’ll respond then. Thanks!”

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The IT Manager November 30, 2012 at 12:00 pm

I think the point is more that the LW feels unprepared to respond. that might just be my bias though because I can empathize. I do not think well on my feet and can’t come up with sharp, witty comebacks. For me the problem is more in social situations, but I feel for the LW.

Allison’s advice about saying you’ll get back to the person later is good. Even “I’m on a roll with this task right now, can I talk to you about this other task later?” is fine. I don’t know your job or expecatations, but you shouldn’t have to hold all details in your head. There’s probably nothing wrong with you not being prepared to answer every question so try not to let it demoralize you so much as to feel incompetent. That’s being far too hard on yourself unless your job required that you memorize that info for some reason.

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Jamie November 30, 2012 at 12:15 pm

I had the same problem, of feeling oddly guilty if I didn’t have the information someone needed at a moments notice on the tip of my tongue.

Then I took a cue from my boss who has no problem with people waiting while he pulls up the information he needs, or refreshes his memory. Once I realized it was okay in this culture to take a breathe and prepare I started allowing myself to do that. It wasn’t that easy – but gosh it was one of the best changes I’ve ever made to how I approach things. Very freeing.

I have wildly divergent parts to my job. If I’m up to my elbows in code and compiling data doing a drive by to ask me a question about hardware or inventory controls will get you a much longer pause because I’ve got to reengage the part of my brain that handles that as I wasn’t using it just then.

If you want a faster answer or for me to be prepared for a specific discussion I have email…that’s an excellent way to contact me to ask for info or schedule a brief chat where I can prepare for the topic.

Seriously though, Alison is right, there are tricks to minimize interruptions but the fact is some of that will be an element for the vast majority of us. Changing your mindset about how fast you should reasonably be able to answer a blindside question is ideal.

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Katie December 1, 2012 at 12:34 pm

As an educator, I feel this kind of guilt constantly. Teachers are expected to know everything off the tip of their tongue constantly, and if you make mistakes or forget something, it feels just terrible. I try my best to prepare, but no amount of preparation ever makes one perfect. It’s a very frustrating part of the work!

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ChristineH December 2, 2012 at 12:29 pm

I’m sure it’s a pretty common feeling across many industries. I can certainly attest to that!! (I’ve worked in human services and a professional association manning a conference hotline).

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KellyK November 30, 2012 at 12:16 pm

I also get flustered when interrupted, to the point where sometimes I actually jump if I’m engrossed in a task and then someone says something to me.

All the strategies for minimizing interruptions are good, but I think it’s also reasonable to say, “Hang on just a sec,” and close what you’re working on (maybe finishing a sentence or hitting save or whatever) and then turn to them and say, “Okay, now what can I help you with?” Basically giving yourself a second or two to give them your full attention before they hit you with the question.

Personally (so it might not apply to you), when I get flustered, it’s because my brain was still figuring out that someone was talking to me during the first half of whatever it was that they said, so I only caught the second part of it. So whatever you can do to get a second or two pause to fully concentrate on the new question might help.

Outside of work, I’m more direct about it. Like telling my husband, “Sorry, I was totally sucked into this book and only vaguely realized you were talking. Can you please repeat that?” But that might not fly at work unless you do something that’s known for being particularly engrossing and concentration-heavy (e.g., coding).

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ChristineH November 30, 2012 at 12:49 pm

You sound a bit like me…I startle pretty easily, so if I’m engrossed in something, I may jump, sometimes even when the phone rings.

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Jamie November 30, 2012 at 12:57 pm

I have such a hair trigger startle reflex that it’s a running joke in the office. I can’t help it – I’ve leapt (it’s in the dictionary – why not my spell check) literally off my chair when I’m engrossed enough.

A former co-worker actually diagnosed me with PTSD and tried to find out what severe trauma I was hiding because armed with “facts” from Google it would be the only reason I’d be so jumpy.

Just goes to show that Google in the hands of morons is a very dangerous thing.

It is weird though. My dad did it and we all teased him about it growing up…now all four of us do it as adults. It’s got to be some weird neurological thing – I really prefer when people ignore it. A little chuckle is fine but if I could stop I would, so we don’t need a long discussion about how funny it is.

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ChristineH November 30, 2012 at 1:03 pm

Wow Jamie….I thought I was bad!! I have jumped pretty high in my seat (unless that’s what you meant, as opposed to leaping out of your chair to a standing position). I do hear ya about the over-commenting though.

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Jamie November 30, 2012 at 1:13 pm

Yeah high out of my seat – not to standing. The worst was when I had one of those new vinyl thingies under my chair and it was slippery…so I’m up out of my chair and as I’m on the way down the chair makes a break for it. On my way down my foot catches on one of my monitor cords and so it ends with me on my butt under/behind my desk with my monitors knocked completely over (domino effect) disentangling my foot from the cords.

I don’t know who was more embarrassed…me or the person who startled me. This was his first time reporting to me on a project. I actually think he was more embarrassed.

Like my mom used to say, no experience is wasted if you get a funny story out of it later!

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Malissa November 30, 2012 at 1:47 pm

Lol! I worked with a lady just like you once. She startled really easily. The office manager brought in a trick stapler that would shock a person if they tried to use it. Well the evil stapler made it out by the copy machine one day. The coworker grabbed it to staple something she’d just printed. She screamed and the stapler met it’s death on the wall across the room.

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ChristineH November 30, 2012 at 2:06 pm

LOL!!!

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KarenT November 30, 2012 at 1:09 pm

I have a friend like you. She jumps at everything– put your arm around her and she flinches and make a old noise and she jumps. We’ve been friends since kindergarten do I can attest to the fact this is just who she is. People always make jokes about her having PTSD or battered woman’s syndrome. I just don’t get it. It’s annoying because she doesn’t have those things, but if she did, how horribly insensitive would people pointing it out be?

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Jamie November 30, 2012 at 1:16 pm

It is insensitive, and fortunately neither of those apply to me. But this co-worker was convinced it was sexual and went to great lengths trying to convince me I’d been raped or molested and have blocked it out.

Talk about boundary issues – one little chat with his boss and he never said a word to me about that again.

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ChristineH November 30, 2012 at 2:10 pm

I guess I lucked out because no one has ever been insensitive to me like that when I get startled. I do have slight vision and hearing impairments, so most who know me probably assume it’s partly from that. Jamie, I’m glad you were able to get that guy to stop with his comments.

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mj November 30, 2012 at 2:17 pm

I don’t just leap, I scream… loudly. People are very cautious when approaching my cubicle. My sister does the same thing.

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EngineerGirl November 30, 2012 at 3:27 pm

Hi Jamie

You might be interested in this book:
The Highly Sensitive Person
http://www.hsperson.com/

My cousin gave it to me because we both have this issue. My big problem is I get over stimulated by noise, talk. I also am able to detect things that are “off”.

I have leveraged it in my career. My ability to detect problems well before they become one is now highly valued by my employer.

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Jamie November 30, 2012 at 3:32 pm

Thank you – I will definitely check that out.

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fposte November 30, 2012 at 6:48 pm

I could certainly see this and the misophonia (which you’ve also said is a family thing, I think) are related–they both seem to be about sounds lighting your brain up a lot more than they do other people’s.

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Jamie November 30, 2012 at 7:24 pm

That’s wherein would put my money, all four of us are affected by both.

I love your phrasing, makes me think of my brain all lit up with a strand of holiday lights. I feel extra festive now. :)

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Heather November 30, 2012 at 8:12 pm

Me too. It’s a running joke in my office too. Every one has scared me at some point or other. At least I don’t scream anymore!!

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KellyK December 3, 2012 at 9:19 am

I blame my family for mine too, but I don’t think it’s neurological in my case. My brother had a tendency to come up behind me while I was on the computer and poke me in the ribs or shoulders. So I guess for me it is a form of PTSD—Perpetually Tormented by Sibling Disorder.

Your Googling coworker sounds like a real gem though. It’s insulting and invasive if she’s wrong (not that having a mental health issue is a bad thing, but the implication that a minor quirk is part of something serious, that you’re lying and or in denial about is something I’d be insulted by). Or even if she were right, how exactly is poking at it and bugging you for juicy details about your childhood trauma supposed to help?

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Katrina Prock November 30, 2012 at 12:16 pm

Ya know, when I first started where I am now, my boss would do that. We’d be talking about X and he’d as me how M was going. At first I would get flustered or frustrated because I wasn’t really sure and I thought he wanted an answer Right. Then. Then one day I said, “Ya know, I’m not sure. I haven’t looked at that since early last week. Let me check and I’ll send you an email with what we’re waiting on.” He was perfectly fine with that.

Don’t let yourself perceive an immediacy that doesn’t exist, like I did! It’s much less stressful when that disappears. :)

PS – I also totally have a sign I tape to the back of my chair that says, “Using my lunch to wrap some things up. Please come back later if it’s not urgent.”

Good luck, OP!

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Katrina Prock November 30, 2012 at 12:21 pm

Also – kind of as a side note. I have one of those jobs where a string of systems is used for everything client related, and I take client calls (the unavoidable interupption). Managing this has turned into me asking the receptionist to stick with me for just. a. second. while. I. jot. this… down. Once I know what task I need to get back to, and where I am with it, I’ll take the client call.

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A Bug! November 30, 2012 at 12:22 pm

If it’s my boss, I ask him if what he’s giving me needs to take priority over what I’m doing or if I can finish that task before moving on to the new one. My boss is entitled to tell me to change my priorities, and sometimes he does, but usually he just tells me to keep on my current task and sends me an e-mail instead.

If it’s someone else, I follow AAM’s advice. “I need to get this done, but I’ll come find you when I have a free moment.”

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Jenn November 30, 2012 at 12:36 pm

Thanks for answering this question!! This happens to me all the time. I work in an open-space office, so it happens constantly that I’ll be working on something….then the phone rings, then my co-worker asks me about ABC, then my other co-workers ask me about XYZ, then my boss asks about QRS, etc.

I don’t think they realize it’s disruptive. I’ve started saying things like “hang on, I’m just finishing this up” or “let me just handle ___ here” and most of the time, they’ll immediately say “Oh, sorry! It’s not a priority, we’ll talk later” or “No problem, I see you’re busy, I’ll email XYZ to you”.

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The IT Manager November 30, 2012 at 1:02 pm

“Just let me finish this thought” works great if you’re in the middle of typing something. Then you can finish the sentence, turn around and try to get your brain to switch gears.

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Tax Nerd December 1, 2012 at 3:11 am

+1 – I often use “Let me finish this thought…” when working on something difficult, but it only buys me 30 seconds. If I need to do research before answering a question, I just say so.

[Do not do what my staff person has done and give your manager (or anyone else) the talk-to-the-hand gesture and say "I'm too busy now" before they say anything. That doesn't reflect well on your professionalism."]

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EngineerGirl November 30, 2012 at 12:42 pm

I have seen and used several tactics when I need concentration time:
* put a plastic chain across the cubicle entrance – this works if you only do it a couple of times a month. More gets people upset.
* put up a sign that says “I am not here. Please ignore any evidence yo the contrary.”. Same caveats as above.
* schedule open office hours. Say, 10-2. Then people know when you are available. Let people know that they can still send you email that you may or may not get to right away.

As far as answers go – just ask for more time. “It will take me a few minutes to put together a complete answer for that. Can I get back to you at (time)?”

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AHK! November 30, 2012 at 12:57 pm

A lot of these suggestions are great if you’re in an open space that is a cubicle, with cubicle walls. But if you are in a truly open space with no cubicle walls, it’s a lot more difficult. At that point, if you’re working an a project that needs concentration, you might want to try and find an empty office to work in for a while.

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Jen in RO November 30, 2012 at 2:40 pm

Unless there *are* no offices in the company and it’s all open space. I’ve found that sometimes it’s better to come in late and stay late, since things quiet down after 6 PM and I can finally work in peace. Some days it’s pretty much impossible to get anything done due to constant interruptions.

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ChristineH November 30, 2012 at 12:59 pm

I’m horrible at dealing with interruptions. I don’t mind an occasional interruption if you approach me gently so that I can better switch gears (in one place I volunteered/temped at, one woman would say, “knock-knock” while gently knocking on my door or cube). This article gives some great advice about what to say, although my brain chemistry is such that I still may feel very flustered or anxious about not coming across rudely to whoever is interrupting, especially a higher-up person. I just need to learn to tame that reaction.

Jobs with more frequent interruptions are probably out of the question for me though. Somehow, I always manage to end up in such jobs :/

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Jamie November 30, 2012 at 1:05 pm

(in one place I volunteered/temped at, one woman would say, “knock-knock” while gently knocking on my door or cube).

I have someone who does the knock-knock thing from the side of my door…so I hear someone but have no idea who it is.

My door is open 99.9% of the time – one small step to the left and we could both know who you are.

It’s like a weird grown up game of peek-a-boo. Kinda creepy.

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bearing December 2, 2012 at 7:41 am

She’s probably trying not to startle you :-)

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Diane November 30, 2012 at 1:01 pm

If your culture allows it, also train your colleagues to use email or whatever you prefer for non-urgent matters–sort of like yesterday’s advice to set up a system to deal with mail and training people to use it.

I used to work on a busy hallway, where people would interrupt all the time. One woman was notorious for walking in, asking, “Is this a good time?” and launching into her question regardless of my answer–which was often, “No, I’m in the middle of X, but I can give you my undivided attention in an hour.”

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GeekChic November 30, 2012 at 1:05 pm

I work in IT in cubeland. My colleagues and I wear headphones as our signal to not bother us (though all of us will ignore them for an emergency, as will our boss).

For truly mentally draining tasks we’ll also turn our phones off and let calls go to voice mail and also not check email. This is done only occasionally and there is always one of us checking the joint Help Desk account and answering the Help Desk phone for calls.

Otherwise I follow what has been noted earlier, asking for more time, pausing to collect myself before I answer, asking my superiors to prioritize if interrupted.

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Not So NewReader November 30, 2012 at 1:40 pm

Years ago, I had a boss that would declare “I am not here today.”
Those days were difficult. I think, in part because questions would come up that only he could answer. The was NO plan B. Another part of the difficulty was dealing with customers saying “But he is right there, I can see him.” whoops.
Yet another component of the problem – we were basically down a worker. With the boss not available- other people had to double step in order to keep pace with the work flow.
It worked into a very stressful day for everyone involved.

Alison advice is right on the money- use a two prong attack on the problem. DO allow yourself the time you need when you really need it. And also work on becoming less flustered when people interrupt. A good way to cut the flustering is with humor. Poke fun at yourself or your situation. I went through a spell where the interruptions really drove me nuts. (A time in my life where I was over-extended and over-tired.) I had to keep telling myself that part of the job was to be available to my coworkers and bosses when needed. If I was working on something “intense”, I found ways to mark the spot that I left off at. That was hugely helpful. I was very concerned about making a mistake because of being interrupted.

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Malissa November 30, 2012 at 1:59 pm

If you interrupt me I’ likely to look at you and tell you to hang on a sec while I finish the line or what ever I am working on. But the nature of my work is that 80% of the interruptions are simple questions. 10% of the time I look at the person and write a few notes and get back to them when I have the time. The other 10% of the time, somebody’s wrecked a car or their computer’s crashed or it’s some other emergency that need to be dealt with immediately.

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Ask a Manager November 30, 2012 at 2:03 pm

One other piece of advice for everyone who feels flustered when they need to ask someone to wait until it’s a better time for them to talk. Think about how you feel when someone says that to you — assuming they’re polite about it, you’re probably not offended or put off, right? If anything, you probably just feel a little bad for interrupting them. So people are unlikely to think you’re being horribly offensive for doing that yourself.

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ChristineH November 30, 2012 at 2:18 pm

Great tip. When I interrupt someone, I’ll sometimes voluntarily say something like, “I can come back later if you’d like.”

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Also Jumpy November 30, 2012 at 2:17 pm

I am also jumpy, but worse, I’m one of the ones that has a really hard time getting back to what I was working on once I’m interrupted (particularly in design and coding tasks).

I just started tracking my time in a much more detailed manner then I did previously, and it is really showing me how many interruptions I have. I rarely have more than a half hour without some interruption or another. I plan on doing this for another couple of weeks and then bringing it up with my boss – not in an accusing manner, but in a “I could get more done if I had larger blocks of time to work” kind of way. I ‘m hoping we can institute an office hours policy for questions rather than just asking co-workers questions whenever they pop into our heads (I am guilty of that too!)

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Scott M November 30, 2012 at 2:27 pm

Learn variations on the statement “I don’t know but I can find out and get back to you.”
It works wonders, believe me !
Just don’t forget to get back to them.

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Not usually Anon November 30, 2012 at 2:30 pm

FWIW this was an interview question I was asked for my current job. My answer was that if I didn’t know something with certainty I would say that, but I would get the information and get back to them.

Apparently my employers shared my extreme annoyance with people who will NOT know something but guess and state it as fact backtracking later. I think sharing this particular pet peeve helped me get this job.

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Jamie November 30, 2012 at 2:30 pm

Sorry – that was me in my super secret disguise.

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AdAgencyChick November 30, 2012 at 3:15 pm

God, I miss having a door. Once upon a time, before seemingly every ad agency decided to go open-office, I had one. I used it only when I really needed to concentrate, and OHMYGOD what I wouldn’t do to have it back.

I have a cube with tall walls now, and I’ve just been putting up with the constant interruptions. But this post makes me think it’s time to get one of those Chinese folding screens and use it like I used to use my office door.

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Anonymous November 30, 2012 at 4:10 pm

If I want to come over to someone’s desk to ask a question, I usually call or email first to make sure it’s a good time. That way they can choose to ignore the phone or email if they are engrossed in something else. But so far I have not been given the same courtesy. I find it fascinating that nobody in my office makes use of the telephone, ever.

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Jamie November 30, 2012 at 4:15 pm

Emailing I understand, because if they are engrossed in something they can read it when they are at a stopping point. But IMO the phone is as much of an intrusion as interrupting in person.

More actually, because if you walk to someone’s desk and can clearly see they are swamped or completely in the middle of something you can walk away without bothering them and send the email. The phone just interrupts them regardless.

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fposte November 30, 2012 at 6:55 pm

Oh, I hate it when people call when they could email. Phones interrupt by definition; even if you don’t answer they’ve shattered your concentration until the voice mail picks up.

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Steve G November 30, 2012 at 8:01 pm

Not me! I hate when it takes 5-10 emails for someone to get what they want. Or the big essays some people send me with “if xx is true, then send me Y info, but if DDDD is going to happen, please calculate www. And did they decide for x, y, z program. I will need version 1, 2, or 3 of info depending on the program choice. blah blah blah, please advise.” Then I have to email them the situation, and confirm what they want, and wait for the response to start working on it. A back and forth game.

If I get a headache and carpal tunnel getting you what you want via email – its time for a call!

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Anonymous November 30, 2012 at 4:21 pm

Sometimes I don’t have any control over how I react when this happens, if I’m super deep into something, I get startled and jump out of my skin! I have an office and it can be fairly quiet in my section so it’s pretty easy to get into a zone…

I think being straightforward is the best approach but OP, you need to internalize and believe that this situation doesn’t reflect badly on you. Once you believe that, then it makes it a lot easier to deal with. As long as you feel like this is a failing on your part and it makes you feel incompetent, it will likely be harder for you to manage these instances.

If it’s something pressing and I can shift to what someone is asking me about I say “Sure, just give me a minute to shift gears/finish this email/ save this spreadsheet” and people are fine with that. If I don’t have time (and it’s not my boss), I say “I’m in the middle of prepping for a meeting that starts in 15 minutes, can we discuss after lunch?” or whatever the case may be.

I do think the key is getting over feeling badly about it.

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-X- November 30, 2012 at 4:41 pm

I work in an open plan office and wear earplugs sometimes to avoid random distractions.

If someone walks up to my desk to talk with me, I’ll take one out so I can hear them.

And if I’m really busy I simply say something like “I’m sorry, I don’t have time now – let me get back to you later today if that’s OK.”

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Steve G November 30, 2012 at 7:56 pm

How about rules for those who interrupt you (OK maybe I get away with this being in NYC where so many people are high strung as long as I smile at the end its fine):
1) Email me questions or stuff you want me to review. You know I don’t let stuff sit long.
2) Ask yourself “did I try to lookup the answer myself, or am I being lazy, or do I just want to socialize?”
3) If what you really want is to socialize, invite me to lunch instead!

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Cassie December 1, 2012 at 12:22 am

I don’t like interruptions either (especially when I’m smack dab in the middle of the meaty part of a project) but I’d rather deal with the interruption at that time, than schedule a later time to discuss XYZ. Especially if it turns out the issue is a question/answer that takes 30 seconds to answer. (I don’t like waiting around for people to come back – it’s my weird quirk).

If it’s not urgent, I’ll listen to the request/take notes/etc, and then leave it on my desk and go back to my other task. But I would rather know then and there what the other person wants so that I can decide if I continue with the task I was doing (which could be something necessary but not urgent) or if I need to switch gears RIGHT NOW.

I even do this if a coworker is in my cubicle socializing and someone else comes up with a question. I’d rather answer the question and get back to chatting (I don’t chat for very long anyway), than have the 3rd party loiter around and wait for me to finish socializing. Once my chatty coworker told the 3rd party to come back later – I was not too pleased with that. It’s my cubicle, it should be my call.

We have cubicles but I sit in an area with lots of foot traffic and noise from around – I can hear phone conversations from one end of the suite to another – so there’s always a hum of noise anyway. And the cubicles basically only have two walls (with a shortened shared 3rd wall) so I couldn’t put up some kind of temporary barrier to prevent interruptions anyway.

(I should note that if I am working on something extremely urgent – like I have 10 minutes before the deadline – and someone comes along with something unrelated to the project/deadline – I would tell them that I’d go see them a little later; but most of the time, I don’t turn people away).

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Jan December 1, 2012 at 10:28 am

I would much prefer someone interrupt me and have me answer their question than receive one more email. I feel it is important to help others keep things moving forward as I hope they will help me keep my tasks moving forward also when I have a quick question.

The culture at my company is that you should go talk to someone rather than email or pick up the phone.

If workers in our office have a task that requires intense concentration, most of them will work from home for the day to finish the task at hand.

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Flynn December 1, 2012 at 5:35 am

Aw, I thought this one would be really handy but it’s not relevant.

(I work out on desk in the library, so I might have my head deep in an intricate Excel sheet when a patron comes up and needs instant attention. Interruptions are the norm – ideally, we wouldn’t be working on desk at all, but that’s not an option if we ever want to get anything done).

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Justin December 2, 2012 at 11:48 pm

The worst is when interruptions are encouraged in order to foster a “fun” workplace. At my last job, our department had Nerf dart guns that only seemed to be used to disturb those who were deep in thought. Nothing like trying to concentrate and getting a dart in the back of the head. The CEO was big on open floor plans, lots of random disturbances, loud idle chatter, etc. Not the most productive place.

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Anonymous December 3, 2012 at 10:04 am

If you have short cube walls I have a couple tricks that work to at least let you finish typing your sentence, looking at code, moving something around, or whatever you are working on.

1. I have a small tin of candy. People play with it because it is magnetic, or eat a piece of candy. It has also helped train people to come up where I can see them instead of coming up behind me.
2. Magnetic words. This is great, people play with that and let me finish whatever I’m doing if it is a couple seconds and I don’t feel bad about finishing. If I’m really busy I’ll say they should work on a novel or I’ll come to their desk in a few.

If you just need a few moments to finish and people not coming up behind you this has worked wonders for me.

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