How I learned to stop worrying and love interruptions (work edition)
August 14, 2017 5:57 PM   Subscribe

How do I learn to just go with the flow and accept the never-ending flow of communication and requests at work? My INTJ brain is always bracing for the worst!

Everyday at work, is a constant flow of interruptions and questions and impromptu conversations, and emails, and IMs, requests, and silence, and meetings, and tasks, and urgent to-dos and mundane tasks, and phonecalls from people who don't want to put things in writing, and questions, and answers, and more questions. Phew!

With all this unplanned activity, my INTJ brain struggles to just go with the flow and I'm often in a defensive mode, because I view all this communication as disruptive to what I need to get done. For example, I hesitate to reply to IM's from certain people, or don't pick up the phone when it's an unknown number, or read over an incoming email once and don't respond, and before I know it, 10 new emails about 10 unrelated topics have buried it.

In reality though, impromptu conversations and questions, and open communication, help me learn things and complete things overall.

How can I remind myself of this, stop being defensive, and be more receptive myself to realtime communication? If you have a similar work environment, how do you approach this -- any particular philosophy (or even quotes) that you go by?
posted by watrlily to Work & Money (14 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
When I have a day where I am busy but feel like I'm not getting anything done, I remind myself that handling the little side tasks is an important part of my job.

Not only am I directly responsible for handling little things on top of longer-term projects, the little things give me a chance to build rapport with my 100 or so internal customers (co-workers). This is very helpful for me to set future priorities (some people think that the company is actively trying to make their lives worse every minute, with all this training and PPE and blahbalh while others are sharp-eyed and have good suggestions, etc).
posted by Fig at 6:19 PM on August 14, 2017 [4 favorites]

I also like to have uninterrupted focus time, and get stressed when I feel like I'm not on top of things. I currently have a job where all sorts of random things pop up that I have to attend to. At first it was stressing me out because I felt like I wasn't able to focus on doing my job, but then I changed to a mindset as described by Fig. The distractions *are* part of my job! I also started putting way less on my to-do list and just leaving room for things to pop up.

It's also totally reasonable to block out chunks of time on your calendar to just work on certain things, and turn off IMs, close your email, etc., mute the phone at that time. If you have an "away" setting on your IM you could use that. If you don't have a private office, try booking a conference room during that time.
posted by radioamy at 6:57 PM on August 14, 2017 [6 favorites]

Is there any way you can delegate these interruptions to other people, as in they take care of them before they even get to you?
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 7:39 PM on August 14, 2017

Anecdotal advice here but maybe some of this could work for you: I have a rule at my job (that everyone knows now) that I need to be left alone for the first hour at the beginning of work so I can respond to emails, and not interrupted if I'm eating lunch at my desk. Juniors are required to lump their questions into groups rather than to come over every five minutes with only one question.

I've taken to responding to emails at home in the morning before I get into work so I'm ready to go the minute I get in the door, just in case people or phone calls try to catch me off guard. We have also setup Slack that I prefer people use with small questions so I can respond when I'm free instead of having people come over to my desk to interrupt.

I've also told people to "review your own work thoroughly first before coming to me so I don't have to waste my time finding simple errors." It's a bit of a learning curve as I go - while I am stern about my time, I also don't want to drive people away as I need them to check in. I have to make sure they are on track with the standards and schedules that make our office run efficiently, and the best way to do that is to take time to listen to their questions.
posted by cristinacristinacristina at 8:03 PM on August 14, 2017 [3 favorites]

I agree with everyone else here: being interrupted for questions IS your job, and you just have to tolerate it. If it's remotely possible in your job (it's not in mine), if you work off hours when others aren't in the office, or if you have the permission/ability to go somewhere else to work for awhile, or if you can claim to be in a "meeting" when you're not, that way you might be able to get stuff you need to not be interrupted during done.

I absolutely can't do off hours or get any privacy in my job, so I've just gotten used to it. The more you get interrupted, the more you have to learn how to get back to where you left off. Training, I guess.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:15 PM on August 14, 2017

The higher you rise in the structure, the more you have to manage your time. So just openly let your colleagues know: this is when I'm interruptable, this is when I'm not. Whatever signal you need - an "OUT" on your intranet, a clsoed door - is what you work out with the team. As you move higher up you need to establish increasing levels of gatekeeping - that's just normal. If you're not quite at the level of having an assistant, you do this for yourself, in the form of structured agreements with staff about how/when they can access your time.
posted by Miko at 9:15 PM on August 14, 2017 [2 favorites]

No, you are right to not love this stuff. What has to become natural is that pushing back on this stuff is OK. Only take on what is actually business beneficial.

What I routinely push back up the chain of command when something comes to my team is this: We can do this, but you are trading off X for it (generally a delay). I will routinely evaluate incoming requests to see if they (1) immediately make the company money (2) provide decision support for long term planing (3) infrastructure requests that fit within both best practices and larger scale modeling (4) want to haves / wish to haves.

When someone makes a (4), I generally politely let them know that its not going to happen. I try to work on (3)s as much as possible. I do (1)s always - but you'd better show me the money - otherwise admit it was really a (2). (2)s I do only under duress / make sure that they are not impeding the infrastructure (3)s needed to self-service the (2)s.

Adhoc requests are part of life; however, if it is going to throw the day into chaos, make sure your boss knows.

(Note: my boss doesn't send me small requests - those come in from his peers), where my team serves as SMEs.
posted by Nanukthedog at 9:23 PM on August 14, 2017 [2 favorites]

I found it helpful when I accidently switched off the notification of new emails - the icon in the task bar. That meant I could go into Outlook every hour or so rather than reacting to every new conversation.
posted by paduasoy at 12:21 AM on August 15, 2017 [3 favorites]

I think it's a question of managing your responses to these distractions. Yes, it is your job to answer questions, respond to requests, meet with people and talk to them and occasionally make small talk with your colleagues helps build relationships. But equally it is also your job to deliver any deliverables you have to produce yourself. So you need to carve out the time for both aspects of your role. Ideally you also get your deliverables done during your normal working hrs and not in your own time. So for me it's about balancing the need to support others and the need for productive time. And there is a difference between timely and immediate in most jobs.

Use your calendar - schedule productive time and perhaps email time when you're not available for calls or meetings in the same way you would schedule these calls or meetings. And stick to those times if at all possible.

Most IM systems allow you to block others from disturbing you - if you have something you need to finish you turn that on.

Don't check your emails constantly and feel you have to respond in real time. It is very unlikely that anything truly bad will happen if they have to wait an hr or two for a response. Finish the task you're working on and then spend time on your emails. This has the added benefit that you can start with the last message in a chain.

Calls can go to voicemail if required for the same reason....but manage expectations here. Propose a time for a call and get it in your schedule if at all possible.

If you can't get uninterrupted time at your desk lock yourself away somewhere for a couple of hrs to focus.

Finally, it is ok to ask how urgent something is and to propose a timeline. And it is also ok to explain that you have conflicting requests and to prioritise, if need be with input from your superiors.
posted by koahiatamadl at 1:52 AM on August 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

Good advice above, re setting boundaries and blocking off time for uninterrupted work, responding to e-mails, etc.. I have also found it useful to keep reminding myself that dealing with questions, crises, etc is actually part of my job, and I have started maintaining a "did do" list in addition to my "to do" so I can track some of those "unplanned accomplishments."
posted by rpfields at 5:27 AM on August 15, 2017 [4 favorites]

I find that if my desk is physically cluttered, the interruptions have a bigger (negative) impact than when it's clear of all but the single project I'm otherwise trying to work on. The visual clutter is itself an interruption. So on high-interruption days, I make a special effort to clear everything off both my desk and my computer screen, lining up the windows I need and hiding every window I don't need. Email and text apps are hidden, and I glance at incoming messages when the alert pops up and only look at the actual app if it's something that needs a timely response.
posted by Capri at 9:03 AM on August 15, 2017

I'm a librarian, and a substantial part of my job is to be responsive to questions as they come in. And another part of my job is to make progress on big long-term projects, some of which do much better if I can focus on them.

When I was having trouble with this at a previous job (where it turned out part of the issue was unreasonable expectations, and some specific immediate environment stuff that turned out to be particularly bad for me), a friend recommended the O'Reilly book Time Management for System Administrators. and I found a bunch of the concepts in that helpful, both in the sense of giving me some concrete things to try, and in figuring out where it was potentially possible to push back for specific tools that would help.

I triage pretty hard (partly because I know I do my best work when I can stack similar tasks together, or maybe it's a good day for me to do X, but not Y for reasons not under my control - headache, lots of meetings that break up my day, etc.) Learning which things actually need a response and how much of one is a key skill here.

I am absolutely polite and helpful to people with questions (core part of my job!) but I don't necessarily drop what I'm doing once I've done the initial contact - they get a "I've got a couple of things I'm working on today - can I get that for you tomorrow?" or "When do you need that by?" or whatever makes sense. Or I simply stick it in my stack of things to answer and get back to them in a day or two (for general reference questions - if it's going to be longer than a day or two, I email them to say so.)

Having a todo app where I can drag and drop things (and making my peace with the fact I may have to give up on a longer project for the day if we get a more urgent question) helps a lot. (I use Todoist, and am glad to talk more about how I set it up.) Plain lists or things where I have to recopy day to day don't work for me.

The fact I've demonstrated that I turn out really good work if you let me do it the way that works well for me helps a lot - this is trickier if you're new to a job and what you want is outside of the workplace's culture about things. Asking people who've been there a while who may have similar demands / needs / preferences for how they handle it can be very informative.
posted by modernhypatia at 9:46 AM on August 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

The above are all good suggestions. What I realized is that the interruptions in my work flow are unavoidable. What I can do is structure information in such a way that when an input comes in I can store it quickly and get back to it when more convenient. Poor data handling hugely impacts productivity so an interruption becomes an open loop, becomes a worrisome thought, becomes a fearful future event if not dealt with.
What I do is I use Evernote as my front line data capture/GTD utility with an in box so i can quickly capture the new thoughts/to-do/capture or whatever. Then I file that away in a to-do notebook with tags for priority, area and so forth. Larger captures go into OneNote which I think is better at structuring big stacks of information, like for projects.
By doing this consistently, I can deal with interruptions far more easily, then get back to thread needing attention consistently with the data I need at hand. So, go GTD + virtual data storage.
posted by diode at 10:16 AM on August 15, 2017

I think a big part of why the interruptions feel like a waste of time (for me at least) is that you feel like you have nothing to show for them. They are part of your job but you don't get a sense of crossing something off a to do list, or have a finished thing to point and say that's what I got done today.

So try counting them. Print or draw out a grid with the days of the week and hours that you are at work. Throughout the day, when you answer a call, have a person show up at your desk, or answer an IM, make a tick in the corresponding block. Include emails that feel like this sort of interruption as well. These days the majority of contacts come to me through a incident tracker app with lots of reporting built in so I don't bother with an hourly grid, just days of the week divided into before and after lunch.

Don't get fancy with separating out types of interruption, just count them. The first day or two you might forget a lot but it starts to feel really satisfactory to count them up and get "points" for them. If you have any sort of task list that you keep for yourself, start putting a daily entry of the total # of "incidents" you dealt with. I used to just write it on my wall calendar but I don't have one anymore. Now I add an outlook calendar entry when I leave for the day, I put down any big project I worked on that's not already blocked out on the calendar, and the # of answers I gave that are not tracked in another app. So yesterday's says "1.5 hours UAT, 6 answers".

If you want to target a certain type of interaction, whether it's about a certain subject or a certain method of interaction, you can start making two sorts of marks. But in order to keep up with the tracking it needs to stay simple so I'm never tracking more than one "special" element at a time. Currently I'm making a circle every time the people in one location contact me outside of our normal incident tracker, and a line for every other such contact, because it feels disproportionate to me and I want numbers to back me up when I talk to my boss on our next catch up call. (so far it's 20% of the contacts coming from a group that's about 2% of the users so that's a thing)

Once you have a week or two where you think you've kept good track, you can look for patterns in time of day, days of week, etc. If you can find a time when people tend to leave you alone, maybe you can even book a meeting room all by yourself, and get work done in there for an hour without feeling like you are abandoning your post. My work has a few empty offices that are included on the booking calendar as "flex spaces" where either one person can work on a project or a small group can focus on something together.

Back when I had on site people to support, I made a sign that said "unless this is an emergency, please come back at:" and then stuck on one of those cardboard out to lunch clocks. It actually got almost universally respected, I think because I never set the time to more than an hour in the future. I would block on that time on my calendar, set my phone to voicemail, and IM to no interruptions. I even set my email to offline, and if I sent emails they would just wait in my outbox until the hour was up. I did this almost every day, even if all I had to concentrate on was clearing out my email.
posted by buildmyworld at 10:33 AM on August 15, 2017 [3 favorites]

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