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40 ways to cut down on interruptions.

QUICK -- without thinking about it for more than a few seconds, name your biggest time-management problem.

Let me guess: Could it be continual interruptions? If so, you have lots of company.

And communication professionals, especially writers and editors, have more need of uninterrupted stretches of time than people in many other lines of work.

To assist you with this ongoing challenge, here are 40 techniques for controlling interruptions at work.


* Use answering machines, voice mail, call forwarding, and support staff to screen, reduce, record and divert calls.

* Immediately after greeting a caller, ask, "What can I do for you?" (Not "How are you?")

* After callers state their purposes, silently set a time limit for the conversation and write this on a note you can see as you're talking.

* Place calls to talkative business associates just before lunch or late in the day when they will be eager to leave.

* If your call is answered by a machine, leave your entire message instead of a request for a call-back.

* Speak quickly, adding, "Forgive me for talking so rapidly, but I'm in a rush today"; you don't need to explain why.

* Stand up; you'll spend less time on the call and you'll sound more confident as well.

* Group calls together at some point in your day when you're beginning to drag; talking to others is easier than solitary work when your energy is low.

* Get callers used to specific call-back hours by saying, "Please call me back between 4 and 5:30 p.m. any day this week."

* Use closure phrases such as, "Well, I know you're busy, so I'll let you go."

* Arrange a high-sign with a secretary or coworker that means," "Please help me wind up this conversation." When that person responds by buzzing you, you can then legitimately say, "My other line is ringing -- I need to sign off now."

* Hint that you're busy (implying without saying so that you have a visitor or another call) by asking, "May I put you on hold for a minute?"

* If constant phone calls are part of your job, let go of any resentment you feel when the phone rings by taking an attitude of, "Hey -- that's my job calling! That's what I'm paid for."

Office visits

* If practical, institute a closed-door policy for a maximum of two hours daily, preferably during your prime productivity period.

* Try the two-desk trick: Position an extra desk so it can't be seen as people pass your doorway; work there when you need a chunk of uninterrupted time.

* Close the door part way; this is a very effective visit-deterrent that still communicates, "I'm available if needed."

* Put a "Please do not disturb" sign on your door; if people have urgent business they'll come in anyway.

* Develop body-language that says, "I'm extremely busy." Maintain this posture when someone approaches.

* Before visitors sit down, stand up (to shake hands, adjust blinds, etc.); then remain standing while you chat.

* Have a clock clearly visible.

* Time-management expert Charles Hobbs suggests the following to curtail over-long visits: During your turn to speak (not while your visitor is talking, which would be discourteous), stand up, approach your visitor, and put a friendly hand at his elbow. Then, chatting affably, gently guide him to his feet, steer him out the door, and walk him to the elevator -- or even to his car.

Subordinates/support staff

* Tell your subordinates, "I like my people to bring me solutions -- not problems."

* Ask subordinates who over-interrupt to make lists of questions and, when they have five or more, to leave them in your in-box or on voice mail.

* When you delegate, mutually agree on end-results and due-dates with subordinates, then invite them to devise the "how" of producing results without consulting you. (Warning: They might use different methods than yours.)

* Give clear and complete instructions, together with this request: "I'd prefer you to take notes, because I find it cuts down on questions later."

* Communicate positive expectations by saying things such as, "I know I can count on you to figure out how to do this with a minimum of direction from me."

* When subordinates go through a day or a project without interrupting you, comment appreciatively.


* When someone asks (in person or on the phone), "Got a minute?" You answer, "Just about that," or "I can give you five now or 20 later this afternoon." That way, you alert your interrupter at the start that you're on a tight schedule.

* Have your top goals for the week and month in plain view every day, to help you remember that indulging interrupters steals time from moving toward those goals.

* Take an assertiveness training workshop or buy a set of cassette tapes on that subject.

* Use what management guru Tom Peters ("In Search of Excellence") calls "self-cooptation": schedule meetings with yourself before others do, by firmly committing to chunks of time that you block out in your personal organizer book.

* Rehearse courteous, honest ways to say no, such as, "How nice of you to ask me -- but I have a prior commitment."

* One of the most thoughtful ways to bow out of requests for you to attend an event, or volunteer for an activity: "My schedule doesn't permit me to take that on, but I know a couple of other people who may be very interested." Then supply the names -- but only if they really would be interested.

* Make a "To be copied" folder that you or your assistant can take for reproduction once or twice a day, instead of making individual trips to the copier.

* Create a reputation as someone who highly values time management and productivity; when people know you're time-conscious, they'll interrupt less.

* Don't be a frequent interrupter yourself: Many people will treat you the way you treat them.

* Ask for cooperation in keeping calls and meetings short. Practice such phrases as, "I'd love to see you, if you promise to help me keep our lunch to 45 minutes."

* If you have a major project due, try working in another location: an empty office, a conference room, the company library. Or, ask your supervisor if you may work at home one day a week until the project is completed, as long as you're available by phone.

* Arrange your schedule so that you come in a couple of hours earlier or stay a couple of hours later than most of your coworkers.

* Keep your expectations realistic. If you can create an uninterrupted two-hour stretch during your prime working time on a fairly regular basis, you're controlling interruptions effectively.

Ann Reeves, Los Angeles, writes frequently on time management and increasing productivity.
COPYRIGHT 1992 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Reeves, Ann
Publication:Communication World
Date:Nov 1, 1992
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