You have to kill interruptions as much as possible.

The first step is to take control of emails.

It’s interesting that we have established rules and procedures for physical interruptions, for example if someone’s office door is closed, if they are obviously on a phone call or If they are in conversation with someone else, we are conditioned not to interrupt unless it is a serious emergency.

Email doesn’t work this way, and for many people is an immediate interruption, as too many people look at email as it hits their inbox and bleeps, whether on their desktop, laptop or hand-held.

The other problem with an email is that until you open it, you have no real understanding (beyond the alert and who was the sender) as to what priority level it may be, and therefore whether it actually warrants the interruption that it has created. We tend to give emails elevated levels of priority that go well beyond what they deserve. I believe that very few emails are sent with the belief that they will be handled instantaneously, but most people accord them that privilege.

Try this for test.

Send an email to a group of 6-8 subordinates or peers saying “Call me when you read this”. You will be surprised at how quickly you will get the return calls, despite the fact that no competent manager could ever assume that email is a way to get an instantaneous response. If it was time critical they would at the least have left a message on your voicemail.

The problem is that handling emails one by one is a terrible time waster.
What happens is that when something interesting happens you can receive at least 20 emails on the same topic, for example “Leo Apotheker being appointed CEO of HP”. At least if you group your emails, and only actually work your inbox just a few times a day rather than every time you are beeped, you can save yourself a lot of individual responses describing your surprise.

Secondly when you know that you have 100 emails to handle in just the 1 hour that you have scheduled, you tend to be much more succinct and bloody-minded about how you handle them than doing them one at a time. The key is to turn off the email bleepers, and schedule email time when it suits you to handle email rather than as though each email was a gift from above.

The second step in managing interruptions is to try and club physical interruptions together as well by letting people know when you will be readily interruptible. You can do this by regularly scheduling “open door” (green) time. In the same way that I suggested that you need to schedule private time (red time) for appointments with yourself (see “Second Secret of Time management” posted 30/9/2010), you should also schedule regular times when anyone can come in to interrupt you.

Whenever I was in home base, I would always try and schedule 2 regular 30 minute sessions per day when anyone could come in to my office for a chat or to ask or tell me something. The rules were that no-one could actually make an appointment during that time or close the door, and anyone could come in at any time no matter who was already in the room. It was not allowed to become an unscheduled meeting, just an ad-hoc chat session. I considered this to be a true open door policy, rather than just writing that you have one. Once people got to know that these times were available they started to schedule their time around my availability, seriously minimising my interruptions, but still leaving me easily approachable on any quick-fix topic.

Some executives I have worked with have even taken the additional step of not having chairs available in their office during these sessions, making those who drop in much more succinct and much keener to have their say and then depart.
As you may actually also have some free time during these open-door sessions, it’s also a good time to do some of those tasks that are graded as “C”s on your do-list, as these do need to get done some time and they can normally handle interruptions.

By the way, it doesn’t hurt to turn the mobile phone off occasionally as well.

Focus can have a great bearing on success, and the more you can control interruptions, whether physical or electronic, the more you can achieve it when needed.



  1. Simon Hopkins says:

    Les, Absolutely agree!
    I feel old having refused to use IM for exactly this reason (and only sparingly use text messaging). If it is urgent call me, if it is less urgent, I will answer your mail.
    However, this has led to the occasional jibe from younger colleagues. Not sure if the Gen-Y-ers have been raised as natural multi-taskers, or simply accept that key work-products will take longer to create (or be completed to a lower quality)…

  2. leshayman says:

    Hi Simon,
    Not sure about them being natural multi-taskers, but they certainly have built interrupt driven lives, based on everything having immediacy without necessarily a need for prioritisation.

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