Are you constantly being interrupted due to the nature and demands of your position? Your co-workers and customers aren’t going anywhere. Here’s how to best manage their demands.
Excerpt from Keith Rosen’s book, Own Your Day.
Interruptions are a part of our day. Whether they take the form of an impromptu meeting, a client service issue, a last minute proposal, personal demands, emails, or conversations with your staff, these unplanned events or activities have a tendency to rob us of time throughout our day, regardless of how intentional we are around scheduling our day.
While the majority of these distractions that inadvertently consume our day can be eliminated, the fact remains, many cannot. However, do not despair, there is hope. If you can’t eliminate them, you can learn how to manage them better.
Robert, the owner of a media company called me the other day, sharing his frustration about not being able to get through his daily task list due to the constant barrage of questions, problems, and various other interruptions from both customers and staff.
Not wanting to be the bad guy or send the wrong message to his staff that he doesn’t care, Robert allowed his employees to interrupt him with their questions and requests for help. Whether it was via email, phone, a text, or them walking into his office and taking a seat in front of his desk, Robert had a tendency to drop what he was doing in fear of any additional fallout or backlash if he did not address their needs immediately.
To quell this ongoing problem, I shared a process with Robert to better manage the interruptions and reset the expectations people have of him. This way, he can be the one to take ownership of his time and his day rather than allowing the daily chaos, interruptions, and distractions to dominate him.
Although a component of his solution was tactical, it’s important to recognize that the solution to Robert’s problem had less to do with something he had to plan or complete to better manage his day, but something he had to change in his communication that would protect his time and build the buffers and structure he needed in his day without compromising any relationships or causing any other collateral damage in the process.
Here’s an example of a two step communication process you can leverage the next time one of your direct reports comes to you with a pressing issue. And the best part is, you get to protect your time, support the other person, and manage that interruption around your schedule, without being the bad guy.
Step One: Acknowledge and Confirm Urgency
Let’s quickly set the stage. You’re sitting at your desk. The phone rings or someone walks into your office asking you, “Do you have a few minutes?” Rather than respond with the “Yes” that’s going to quickly become a trigger point of contention for you, first start managing your visceral reaction to say, “Yes” and respond in a way that would protect your time, while respecting the other person’s needs.
Instead, respond by saying, “Kathy, I appreciate you coming to me for assistance. I happen to be completing that big proposal for GDC Inc. now, which I have to send to the customer within the next hour. However, I want to be as supportive and responsive as I can to your request and ensure that whatever you need, we give it the time and the attention it deserves so that we can successfully work through it together. While I know it’s important to you that we handle this now, is this something that demands immediate attention and must be handled right away or can it wait until I complete this for GDC, when I can then focus all of my time and attention on you?”
Let’s face it. Everyone who asks for help thinks that what they’re working on is the single, most important activity or project of the day. And in their world, it is! They think it needs to be handled immediately when in most cases, people create this pressure themselves. That’s why, depending upon your response, you are either eroding or building trust by acknowledging that it is a priority for them, and for you as well, rather than dismissing their request.
While we all want to help people at the time they ask for it, the majority of issues may not be all that time sensitive, even though everything today is positioned as an immediate priority.
Now of course, in some cases, it may not be able to wait! But that’s okay. If you can cut down on these types of distractions by 50%, that’s more than 50% ownership that you just took back over your day. Imagine how that would impact you?
While you are being sensitive to how they are feeling, some things can actually wait. The difference is, you’re making them feel really good about waiting because you’re now responding in a healthier way. However, if you never ask, you never create the opportunity to distinguish between what’s urgent and what is not.
Step Two: Demonstrate Respect, Then Schedule a Time That Works
Once they tell you how pressing their matter is, you now have the choice to assess the situation and either handle it in the moment or find the time to address it later. You’ll find many of these urgent requests can be postponed using the strategy I shared earlier, since that approach will reveal whether or not something is a true, timely issue or emergency. Once you uncover that the situation is not as pressing as initially presented, continue with the following suggestion.
“Okay, then how about you and I discuss this tomorrow morning at 10am (suggest a time that works for you) when I know I can give this the time to work through it together without feeling pressured or rushed, and give you my undivided attention without being distracted. Does that work for you?”
Who’s not going to want the undivided attention of their manager? Notice what you’re not doing here. You’re not telling them “I’ll be done in five minutes. Let’s talk then.”
Most of the time, whatever it is you are currently engaged in, you won’t be done in five minutes, so why create this additional pressure in your day? This enables you to be more realistic with your time commitments and what you currently have on your plate.
So, look at your schedule. Then, plan this conversation at a time when you know you will not be fiercely competing with other tasks that you need to handle which command your attention.
Taking this approach removes the risk of coming across as self-righteous, uncaring, and insensitive by saying something like, “I can’t help you now,” or “You know what to do here, so just do it,” or “How long have you been in this position?” or “I’m too busy now, I’ll try to find some time later to help you,” or “You know where to find the resources you need for this.”
Now, you can address the person’s request in a respectful, supportive way, while honoring the boundaries you are setting to protect yourself and your time from other people’s continued barrage of demands.
Here’s an unexpected benefit when adopting this strategy. In that window of time you have created by delaying the conversation, that space creates opportunities and coaching moments. During the time they’re waiting to reconnect with you, they may actually solve the issue or come up with a solution themselves! That fosters accountability and problem solving skills, and less dependency on you as their manager. Yes, that does equate to less problems, calls, texts, and emails.
Rather than compete with distractions and interruptions or feel as if you’re helpless to do anything about them, simply learn how to better manage them and the expectations people have of you by communicating more effectively.