How To Get control of Your Distractions and Interruptions

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This week I have a fantastic question about managing interruptions and distractions throughout the day.

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Episode 92

Hello and welcome to episode 93 of the Working With Podcast. A podcast created to answer all your questions about productivity, GTD, time management, self-development and goal planning. My name is Carl Pullein and I am your host for this show.

Okay, so we all get them, they are a part of life and they can cause us so much stress and pull us away from the work that is important to us. What am I talking about? I’m talking about all those interruptions from colleagues, customers and clients and yes, friends and family. What can we do to, not eliminate them—after all that’s not going to be possible—but at least reduce the impact they have on our day? That’s the topic for this week’s podcast.

Now, before I get into this week’s question, for all you newbie Todoist users, don’t forget I have just launched my new, FREE, Getting Started With Todoist online course. It’s around one hour in length and will take you through everything you need to know to set up Todoist, understand how tasks and dates work and build a fully functioning system. The course is available on my learning centre as well as on Skillshare. To enrol in the course you can find all the links in the show notes. 

Okay, on to this week’s question and that means it’s now time for me to hand you over to the mystery podcast voice for this week’s question. 

This week’s question comes from Neil. Neil asks: Hi Carl, could you share your thoughts or system that will help me to resume my work after getting interrupted. I am not distracted by social media much, but I am facing these kinds of issues and it's slowing down my productivity. 

Great question, Neil. 

Being interrupted while at work is just a part of life. It would be very rare for us to ever be in a situation where we could go all day without any interruptions. Things like other people’s emergencies, customers urgently needing the answer to a simple question and our boss wanting something done yesterday. 

Now I feel I am quite lucky here because in the distant past I spent four happy years working in hotel management and in the hotel industry, the guests always come first. This meant that no matter what I was doing if a guest asked for something everything had to be dropped and whatever the guest wanted, if it was possible, we attended to it right away. That could be something as simple as an ironing board or something more complex such as finding a suitable meeting room. Whatever it was it had to be done immediately. 

And the worst thing of all, these interruptions came in the form of a beeper. A little black box that you attached to your belt via a clip and whenever you were needed, you would be ‘bleeped’. It was horrible. I still have nightmares of that beeping sound almost twenty-five years later!!! When it did bleep you either picked up the nearest phone and dialled 1 or you ran up to reception and asked what they wanted. 

I have to say, though, it was a great way to stay fit and healthy. Eight and a half hours of running around. Nothing beats that for keeping the weight off!! 

To manage all these interruptions, and if you were the duty manager that day you had to deal with them yourself, I always carried a little notebook with me with a list of all the things I needed to do during my shift. When we started a shift we did a handover with the manager who was on duty before, so you knew about any issues and you also knew what needed to be prepared for while you were on shift. That could be a meeting, a special dinner or a VIP guest arriving. 

I would write down all the things that needed to be done while I was on shift on one page of that notebook. Then as I went through my shift I crossed off what I had done while I was doing them. 

This meant that as the bleeps came, and they always did, I could stop what I was in the middle of, deal with the interruption and once I had dealt with the guest or problem I would check my notebook and return to where I was before I was interrupted. 

It was a simple, easy way of making sure I did not end up with a lot of half-finished jobs by the time I finished my shift, 

Now, of course, we have smartphones which beep and buzz all day and a lot of those beeps and buzzes are not important at all. We have to exercise a little judgment. For the most part, I have notifications turned off. The only notifications I have turned on are for text messages as any text message that comes in is likely to be reasonably urgent. It could be a student telling they need to cancel their class or it could be my wife asking me something—and whatever that is, it is ALWAYS urgent and has to be done NOW.

However, I do still follow the same ‘system’ I developed while I worked in the hotel industry all those years ago. Instead of carrying a little notebook with me though, I have my phone and I have a list of all the things I need to do today in my to-do list manager. 

These days, it is a little easier, the work I do now and the work I guess most of you do today is not as diverse as the kind of work you have to do in hotel management. Right now, for example, I am recording this podcast, my phone is on do not disturb and so is my computer. For the next thirty minutes, I cannot be disturbed as I record this. 

However, let’s say as I am recording this, there’s a knock at the door and my dog barks—he has his job to do - to protect me from the postman. That would destroy any recording I have done and I need to attend to whoever is at the door. So I stop recording, thank the dog for protecting me and ruining the recording, and see who is at the door. Once that is done, I can return to my recording. 

Now I have a decision to make. Do I pick up where I left off and edit out the bark, or do I start recording from the start again? But that’s all I need to do. 

And that’s really the key here. Having clearly defined tasks.

Okay, so recording a podcast is an easy thing to get back to. What about if you were working on a complex Excel file? Now this one is a bit more difficult. If you are interrupted while in the middle of that kind of work, it could take a long time to get back to where you needed to be. For that kind of work, you really have to go ‘dark’ as I like to call it. Going ‘dark’ means you need to come off the grid and remove any possibility of interruptions. 

That means your phone needs to be off, you need to ‘disappear’ and that means finding a place to work where you will not be disturbed. 

Now, what I’ve found is if you tell people—your colleagues, boss and clients that there will be times when you are not contactable but you will always return calls and emails as soon as you are finished, people understand. They often say they envy your discipline (ah, there’s that word again) It’s simply not true to say “my customers do not understand”. Your customers are humans too. They would understand if you set the boundaries. Most people do not set boundaries. 

And that takes me to the next point. Managing expectations. If you are serious about getting your important work done, you have to do this. You have to manage the expectations of those around you. If you were to tell everyone that between 10 am and 12 pm you would not be available because that is when you get on with doing your work, everyone would respect that. In almost twenty years of working in law and teaching, I have never once had anyone get upset because for two hours each day I was not available, Never. In fact, what I have found is I have received a lot more respect from clients and students and other faculty members than my colleagues who are always available have. 

I do this with email too. I tell everyone I will always reply within twenty-four hours. And I stick to that rule. This is why my “action Today” folder in email is so effective. I set the sorting to first in at the top and the last email in at the bottom. That way, the oldest email is at the top and I can quickly see when it came in and when I need to reply by. If I cannot answer the email because I am waiting for more information, I will still reply within 24 hours and explain I am still waiting for information. 

For most of us, we need to be available to our clients, customers, colleagues and bosses for most of the day. But that does not mean you have to be available for the full eight to tens hours of your working day. Tell the key people in your work life that you need to go dark at some point in the day to get on with your work. I have a client who is a doctor who goes dark between 5 pm and 6 pm every day to do his processing and daily mini-review and deal with the email in his “Action Today” folder. It helps him to stay on top any backlog and his patients all know he cannot be contacted between those times. He never has any problems and no one has got upset because they cannot contact him during that time. 

When you have a realistic list of the work you have to do each day on your daily to-do list, you use your calendar to block time off each day for focused work you will always know what you need to do. If you do get disturbed while you are in the middle of something just make a note of where you are and deal with the interruption. 

If you need your full concentration for a piece of work, then put all your devices on do not disturb and get on with the work. I promise you, no one will be upset if you are unavailable for an hour or two. 

I hope that has helped you in some way, Neil. I know it is not easy to set boundaries and to go ‘dark’, but try it for a week. You will be surprised at what happens. People do understand and you will find people will respect your time a lot more than if you made yourself available all the time. Set some boundaries, manage expectations and you will see a huge boost in your productivity.

Thank you for your question and thank you to all of you too for listening. Don’t forget if you have a question you would like answering on this podcast all you have to do is email me or DM me on Twitter or Facebook and I will be very happy to answer your question. 

It just remains for me now to wish you all a very very productive week.