how to handle interruptions

The Surprisingly Practical Way Of Handling Interruptions

Ever experienced situation such as the following?

You quietly sit on your desk and start working. It’s hard at first. Your attention is all over the place. Your focus bounces around like a tennis ball from thought to thought. 10 minutes pass and you start getting into to it. You are getting concentrated, your work starts to flow. 10 more minutes pass and you are now fully engaged. From the side you look like an experienced Buddhist monk in the deepest stage of zen meditation…

Someone walks into your office completely disregarding the fact you are in the middle of something.

They have an innocent question to ask. You answer it quickly and get back to your work.

But your focus is no longer there, is it?

You need to start the concentration process all over again, often from zero. Here goes all that precious engagement you worked hard for 20 minutes to get…

And if the first interruption does not break your focus, what about the 10th? Or the 30th? Doesn’t it get a little… tired?

Sure, you can lock the door to your office, turn off your cell phone and log out from your email, and it works… for a while. But unless you live (work) in complete isolation on top of a mountain, interruptions will inevitably occur.

It takes on average 21 minutes to regain your focus after any kind of interruption. The average worker spends as much as 28% of their time every day recovering from little disturbances. They are in fact so common that there is an entire field of science dedicated to them called “interruption science” (the study of the effect of disruptions on job performance).

You start to wonder: if it takes 21 minutes to get back to work, how you are supposed to ever get anything done in a world filled with disruptions?

You’d think it would be impossible, but it’s not. You just have to be a little sneaky and have a realistic, pragmatic way of handing interruptions.

Types of distractions

Interruptions generally come from two places: notifications and people. Either someone physically grabs your attention or something around you rings, beeps, pings, vibrates or notifies you in some other way that your focus is needed.

The best way to handle notification type of interruptions is to schedule them in advance. Scheduling your interruptions might sounds like an odd concept at first, but it is the only practical way to put yourself in control of your own attention and focus.

For the latter, the people disturbances, you’ll need to learn how to handle them as they come as those cannot be scheduled, at least not as much.

Scheduling interruptions

Think of scheduled interruptions as “open for business” and “closed for business”. “Open” means you are leaving all communication channels open and letting the outside world come to you with their problems and needs. “Closed” means you are having some “me” time, working on your tasks, taking care of your business and your needs.


Pick three times in your day when you can afford to spend 20 to 30 minutes in handing emails. The optimal times are late morning (around 11 AM), early afternoon (3 PM) and early evening (7 PM). This scheduled way of handling your inbox will prevent emails from breaking your attention by coming at random times.

Each time, spend up to 30 minutes processing all your emails. Implement a “no email left behind” act for yourself and make sure before you click the log out button, that your inbox is completely empty. Handle each email only once using these 5 possible actions and process them all, regardless of their importance.

Pick your 3 times and stick to them. No email before and after. Replying to emails is probably not part of your job description (unless you work in customer service), so put your focus and concentration where it matters more. Scheduling your email processing time will allow you to avoid being distracted by incoming messages, while also making sure you have enough time to take care of all of them.


Pick a time (or two) during the day when you’ll accept and return phone calls. My personal favorite is around 4 PM EST. It is still workday on the East Coast and it is the time when people come back to work after lunch on the West Coast so I find it to be the best of both worlds.

Dedicate up to 60 minutes (mine is more like 30) only for phone calls and take care of them.

Re-record your voice-mail to reflect your schedule. “You’ve reached Mr. X. I am sorry I missed your call. I accept and return calls every day around 4 PM so please call back them or leave a message and I will get back to you around that time. Feel free to also send me an email. If this is truly an emergency, please call XXX-XXX-XXXX”.

This type of voice-mail greeting lets people know what to expect so they don’t get offended when you don’t take their call on the spot.

When you have implemented this for some time, you’ll most likely realize that a lot of people will start sending you quick emails instead of calling you. What would’ve been a 15-minute phone conversation turned into a 2-minute email, thus saving you valuable time.

During “closed for business” time, put your phone on silent and preferably in another room (you can often hear that thing vibrate if it is in the same room). If you have a land-line, disconnect it. This way all your calls go directly to voice-mail. If you are using a VoIP such as Vonage you can set it up to accept calls during a specific time of the day and send all others to voice-mail.

Other notifications

Not all interruptions come from your inbox or phone. But most of them will come from an electronic device of some sort.

During “closed for business” hours, put all your gadgets away. This includes cell phones, smart phones, tablets, additional laptops and portable devices of any kind. Put everything on silent, turn them off if you have to.

If you work on a computer, disconnect it from the internet if you don’t need it.

If you need the internet for your work, disconnect from Skype or any chat program. Close your browser. If you need a browser, keep only a tab or two open and make sure to exit all social media sites.

The cost of each little beep and ping can be as high as 21 minutes so eliminate as many as possible by creating a distraction-free working environment.

How to handle people distractions

The first step is “training” everyone around you by communicating your schedule to them, as well as your expectations.

Tell them to think of you as a heart surgeon performing an open-heart operation or a pilot landing a plane with 400 people on board. People often allow themselves to interrupt your work because unconsciously they don’t consider what you are doing to be that important or time-sensitive that you cannot take a break to take care of their needs. Maybe they don’t understand what you do, or how you work or maybe they never took the time to think if it is important or not and they do things out of habit. Taking a few minutes to communicate the importance you place on your focus is often times all you need  to cut people interruptions in half.

Create a “Do Not Disturb (DND)” sign. Something that clearly says “not now please, I am working, but I will get back to you as soon as I can”. Here are a few practical suggestions

  • Closed door to the office (or room)
  • Headphones – if you work with more than one person in the office
  • CanFocus
  • An actual physical sign that you put on and take off

Anything can be used as a DND sign, as long as you tell everyone around you what it means.

How to deal with interruptions

You have scheduled all notification-type distractions. You have hidden out of sight all electronic devices. Everyone around you knows how you work and have promised to respect your DND sign.

Still, interruptions will inevitably occur, at least a few times a day.

You cannot control your entire environment all the time. But you are in absolute control of how you deal with distractions when they come your way.

Dealing with people (the right way)

If someone walks into your office or grabs your attention during “closed for business” time, ask them if is urgent.

“I am in the middle of something, is this urgent?” 8 out of 10 times people would just walk away as what they need is not urgent.

If they insist, or if it is actually important, continue with “what can I help you with?” This lets people know to cut to the chase and cuts down on the time needed to take care of things.

“How long would this take?” is another question aimed to make people realize your time is limited. It also forces the other side to try to calculate the time needed and commit to some sort of a mini deadline.

Dealing with unscheduled notifications

If an unscheduled beep comes your way, acknowledge where it’s coming from and eliminate the source. If you try to ignore it, it might repeat itself.

Eliminate the source without actually consuming the information. Don’t read that email, don’t look at who is sending you that chat message. Get back to work and you’ll deal with it when the time comes and your work is done.

Dealing with yourself

Not all distractions are external.

Often times, your own random thoughts will be the source of interruptions.

You are writing a blog post about how to handle disruptions and you feel a little thirsty so your mind start thinking about getting some water (or maybe making some tea, after all it is cold outside, yeah, it is kind of chilly, maybe you should also get some extra clothing while you are up for water…) which takes your focus in a completely different direction.

When random thoughts come your way, acknowledge them and externalize them. Write them quickly on a piece of paper and put it away.

If you try to suppress them, they’ll keep coming back. What’s in your brain, is on your mind. You cannot ignore them so you have to deal with them. Writing down your random, focus-interrupting, thoughts will help you deal with them faster so you can focus on the task at hand.

When the inevitable happens

When the moment comes and you need to break your attention away completely so you can deal with an emergency, make sure to mark your progress so you can get back in the groove as fast as possible.

Bookmark the tabs you have open. Save your files and documents.

Don’t expect things to be there, in the same way you left them, when you return to your station. Life is not that easy and predictable. Murphy’s Law exists for a reason. How many times have you not saved a file that you were working on because you didn’t think you need to just to lose all your work when your computer crashes or your program grows an attitude and decides to “quit unexpectedly” for no apparent reason? Save your work because it might not be there when you come back 2 minutes later.

Over to you now

Interruptions are here to stay. Sometimes they will come from external sources such as your phone and your computer or the human world around you. Sometimes they will come from inside your own head. The important thing is they will come so you need to be prepared. Have a plan of action. Deal with them in the most efficient manner and get back to your work.

You are the master of your own world, the king, the big kahuna so don’t let interruptions tell you otherwise. You control them, not the other way around.

How do you deal with interruptions when they inevitably happen? Share in the comment section below:

  • Charlie Galvin

    I came to your site based on the title of this article hoping to find a useful way of dealing with a pointless meeting that lasted almost an hour longer than it needed to be. I barely made it through the second sentence and I was already bombarded with another distraction by your jumper to subscribe to your email list. After I cleared this so I could read on I had barely made it through the following sentence when I was hit with a pop-up further insisting on your email list. Neither further interested me in anymore of your other articles but fully distracted me as to why I had even come to your site in the first place.