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Interruptions can be super frustrating can’t they? You’ve been there before: you’re in “the zone”, working away at max efficiency, only to be interrupted! You have to stop what you’re doing, deal with the interruption, get back to what you were doing (remembering exactly where you were up to!) and hope that you get at least five minutes of peace and quiet.

Never fear; you can become the expert of handling your interruptions. Read on and I’ll give you all you need to know.

What is an interruption?

Interruptions can come in the form of:

  • Phone calls
  • Emails
  • Walk-ins and walk-bys
  • Shouts across the desk, pod and office
  • …and much more!

Interruptions can be for work or social reasons. Gossip is the most obvious time wasting interruption! But you can also be interrupted for all sorts of things that are legitimately work related and it can be an art to manage them effectively.

The trouble with being an office administrator is that it’s your job to be interrupted!

What is NOT an interruption?

Be careful about what you classify as an interruption. If you’re a receptionist, it’s necessary to redirect calls and  greet visitors. If you’re an EA, you’re expected to be interrupted by your boss and the people who want to talk to your boss.

Your role is to assist staff and/or clients. Don’t confuse these requirements of your role with genuine, time-wasting interruptions. Changing your perception at this level alone will do wonders for your frustration at being interrupted; I know it did for me!

What’s interrupting you?

It’s worth investing some time to take a close look at your interruptions. Who’s interrupting you? Why are they interrupting you? How much time does it take to handle the interruption? Does it happen often? Is it urgent?

Use a template like this one to track your interruptions over the course of a few days.

Learning from your interruptions

Now that you’ve had a look at your interruptions over a period of time, look for any patterns and think of ways you might be able to combat your interruptions. Some patterns you might see are:

  • Timeframes
    Are there times when you get the most interruptions? The least? Look at doing more flexible work at times when you tend to get more interruptions and save the intense work for when there’s more chance you get work for blocks of time with minimal interruptions.
  • Deferring
    Are you getting a lot of interruptions for tasks that are actually done by someone else? Are you getting lots of queries about ordering more milk for the staff fridge when that’s actually ordered by Julie? Let the team know who the right admins are for certain aspects in the office to remind them.
  • Repeating yourself
    Are you asked to repeat the same information again and again? Is it because you’re not providing enough information? Perhaps it would help to be more transparent or explicit. A cheat sheet, note above the fax machine or a well-written memo to the team would be good strategies.

Handling interruptions

To help minimise the impact of interruptions, these are the steps I use. The part that I find hardest with managing interruptions is getting the right balance of being polite, yet assertive. With practice, I’m getting better at it, and you can too.

  1. If you get an interruption mid-task, ask if they can wait until you finish typing that email, sending that print job. Alternatively, if your task will take more than a minute or so, write down what you’re up to so that you don’t forget.
  2. If you get a phone call during something really critical, don’t be afraid to let it go to voicemail (if you have the luxury!). You may be able to ask the caller to hold for a moment, while you note where you are up to in a particular task.
  3. If you use your calendar to structure your day, allocate time that you are available to be interrupted. Another way to do this is to block out the time that you DON’T want to be interrupted, making it look like you are in a meeting or similar.
  4. Ask for a brief overview of what they need. Use phrases like “I have a couple of minutes right now” and don’t encourage them by engaging with them more than you need to. Give your full attention and don’t try to do anything else while you’re listening. Be positive, but assertive.
  5. Determine if this is something you can actually do, or if you can refer them to someone else (like, if they need help adding a printer, suggest they talk to your IT helpdesk or similar).
  6. If it’s not urgent, ask if they can email you the request instead. If they’d prefer to discuss it with you, suggest you set up a meeting when you both have time. Try to book something in then and there, so they don’t come back a second time!
  7. If it’s something that you need to do, ask for the deadline and estimate how much time it’ll take for you to do. Use your critical thinking skills to determine if you can fit this in, what you need to shuffle to accommodate and if you need to get some extra help.

The 4 ‘D’s for managing interruptions

There is a popular strategy for managing interruptions called the four “D’s”.

  1. Decide. Determine the times you’re least likely to be interrupted to do the tasks that need you full attention. Keep more flexible tasks for peak times for interruptions.
  2. Defer. In short, say no! You don’t need to be as blunt as this, but you need to know when you need some more time before you can think about anything else.
  3. Discourage. This is one you have to play really carefully. Use your body language to pre-empt interruptions; think posture and eye contact (and a furrowed brow!)
  4. Do. Do listen; do interrupt if they go on for too long; do reduce eye contact; do be effective.

Recovering from an interruption

Just as important is the process of getting back on track after being interrupted. Update your to do list and, if you need to, change your plan of action for the rest of the day.

Take a moment to gather your thoughts, regain your focus and get going!

Do you get interrupted a lot? How do you handle it?

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