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6 Ways to Limit Interruptions at Work (That You Can Use Right Now)

Given the type of work that I do, I spend a great deal of time not talking to anybody and just thinking and typing. I do my best work when I can guarantee (which I usually can’t) several solid hours of total solitude. Nobody walking up to my desk asking me questions, no pop-ups telling me I have new email, no ringing phone. Just me and my computer working in blissful harmony.

Unfortunately, this is rarely possible. Tech support has questions, my boss needs status on a project and Jeff wants to know where we’re going for lunch. It’s less than idea, but it’s reality. The good news is, you can easily cut down on the number of times Bob from Accounting taps you on the shoulder about something or other. Here’s the list of time-tested strategies I’ve come up with to get people who walk up to your desk to take one look at you, then turn around and leave:

  1. Wear Headphones – If your job is anything like mine, these are a Godsend. People walk up to me and notice that I’m wearing headphones and are immediately much less likely to ask me about something. Obviously, if it’s important, they’ll ask anyway. Actually listening to music is optional, but it can make this one more enjoyable.
  2. Position Your Body ‘Intently’ – Body language has everything to do with people’s perception of your level of busyness. If I’m sitting back lazily in my chair, one hand on my mouse and the other fiddling with my iPod, I’m practically inviting the chick from A/R to bug me about something. When I’m really concentrating, I have a tendency to lean forward in my chair. You wouldn’t believe how much this helps. If your body says “I’m busy”, would-be productivity killers will pick up on it and might just leave you be.
  3. Flat-out Ignore Them (at first) – This goes hand-in-hand with number 1. If somebody walks up to my desk and says “Oy, Brett!” (and I actually hear them), I’ll completely ignore them the first time. This is only marginally effective and probably isn’t something you’d want to use on the CEO or anything. If they persist, obviously you’re going to have to talk to them. However, this will weed out a good number of bored coworkers looking to chat about some sporting event or something.
  4. Hang a Sign – If the above choices prove ineffective, open up your favorite word processor, increase the font size to 48 or something, and type “IF IT’S NOT AN EMERGENCY, EMAIL ME.”. Now print that bad boy and tape it to the back of your chair, or pin it to the wall of your cube. Far from subtle, but this will definitely be effective (especially when combined with the others).
  5. Messy Desk – If you have all sorts of crap strewn around your desk, it’s a pretty clear indication that you’re in the middle of something. I know this flies in the face of being a good GTDer, but it will help.
  6. Say “I’m Busy” – When it comes down to it, the other items in this list are just non-verbal ways of saying “This had better be important”. If the person carrying the TPS report is especially dense and still feels the need to take you away from your work, you can always fire back with “Is it an emergency? I’m in the middle of something”. More often than not, they’ll respond with something like “Oh, uh, ok, sure…”. Mission freakin’ accomplished.

I’ve been able to implement several of these ideas at work and it’s given me much more control over how I spend my day. Now, instead of dropping everything whenever Tom, Dick or Harry drops by with something, it’s all sitting nicely in my email inbox waiting to be processed like the rest of my tasks/projects. And, if it really is an emergency, you’re Johnny-on-the-spot for that as well.

It’s all a question of how you work best and how to take control of those circumstances. Just like you create your own happiness in life, you create your own productivity level by what you allow to affect it.

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