I often hear this complaint from various workers: “I wasn’t as productive as I wanted to be today because I kept getting interrupted.” Employees, does this sound like you? And employers, does this feel like the culture of your workplace? We’re all pressed for time on the job, yet frequently, an open office environment–or an open door policy–can make it difficult to accomplish what’s really important. When you truly need to hunker down and focus, is there a way to discourage unwanted interruptions without being unfriendly?
Yes, says Kaitlyn Pirie of RealSimple.com*, and I agree! Below is a combination of my suggestions and hers to help you get the mental space you need to accomplish something important today:
1. Plug your ears. One coworker of mine found the perfect way to concentrate while working in a conversation-filled area with numerous cubicles, the break room, and a busy traffic pattern between the copier and executive offices. Every time she started working on a project at her computer, she’d put on her iPod headphones. I have no idea whether she actually listened to music (to me that would require more concentration!), but it definitely made us all think twice before interrupting to ask her a question.
2. Signal for help. Around our office, when recruiters are using their headsets, it can be difficult to see that they’re on the phone until I start talking and they keep listening–to their customer or candidate, not to me! Their standard signal is to point to the headset, which is a distraction at best. But even if you’re not on the phone, you may just need to signal that you need some space. To prevent unwanted interruptions, suggests Pirie, agree on a signal with your coworkers. It could be a red baseball hat, an orange arm band, or even a little raised flag…(now, there’s a product idea for all you Shark Tank wannabes!).
4. Shut the door! Or string a curtain across your cubicle entrance. (Okay, that’s just silly!) Seriously, if you have a door you can shut and it will buy you an hour of super-concentrated effort, just do it (unless like me, you have a door but can’t shut it without suffocating). You’ll have seven other hours in the day to make up for your “unapproachable” behavior! If you’re in a doorless cubicle, you can still be proactive by facing away from foot traffic. I’ve noticed that when I face the main hallway, I’m more easily distracted than when I sit with my back or side to the doorway. Also, Pirie encourages erecting an actual barrier if possible, such as a filing cabinet, potted plant, or decorative item, to obscure a passerby’s line of sight.
3. Walk away. I’m terrible at ending untimely conversations, but I discovered this one by accident. If you have drop-in company and don’t know how to end the conversation, one solution is to use that moment to take your restroom or coffee break. Or you could try being up front and say, “I need to get back to work,” but it doesn’t always work for me, plus I always feel so…unfriendly?
4. Time out. “Place a clock behind you in view of visitors,” suggests Pirie. “Every once in a while, turn and glance at it. Not while the interrupter is talking (too rude), but when you take your turn to speak. Just glancing, then finishing what you’re saying, sends a subtle but unmistakable signal that you need to get on with your day.”
5. Come in early or stay late. It’s amazing how quiet it gets around our office after quitting time (I’m not an early bird, but I hear mornings are quiet as well!). If you have the flexibility to do so, working every once in a while for an hour when no one else is around can be the most productive 60 minutes of your day. Just don’t use it as an excuse for being a workaholic…not that anyone would do that, right?
*You can read Pirie’s complete article, “Handling Interruptions in an Open Workspace” in October 2014’s issue of RealSimple magazine.