Last updated on March 3, 2019
Pop quiz, hotshot – you have a task of known importance in hand. You have an interruption (phone call, eMail, fax, someone hovering in your doorway) ofunknown importance coming in. What do you do? If you’re truly interested in being effective, you turn off your ringer, close your office door, and shut down your eMail client until you’re done with your task.
Here’s a scenario – tell me if it sounds familiar. You’re diligently trying to maintain your focus on a critical task, only to hear your phone ring. You answer the phone, provide the answer to a co-worker’s question (a questions could have been answered by Googling), then return to your task. Blinking your eyes twice, you get yourself back in the groove and continue. A few minutes later, another phone call with another question pertaining to an issue of low urgency. Again, you breathe deeply and slog onward with your task…until another phone call comes in. And an email with the little red flag indicating that the message is "urgent" pops up in your Inbox, so you start reading it while you’re on the phone. Then you notice Bob from Accounting hovering in your doorway, asking if you "have a minute" as you try to type an eMail reply while finishing up your phone call. Then a phone call comes in on your other line before you are done with the call you’re on. Wait, what was I trying to do again?
Let’s look at the culprits here:
- The Phone. The telephone is, without a doubt, the #1 most ruthless time-waster in business life today. And not only do we have them on our desks, we strap phones to our belts and carry them with us all day! The specific problem with the phone is that while you know exactly how important your current task is, you have no idea if the next phone call you take will be a trivial question or a bona-fide emergency. Here’s a hint: true emergencies are few and far between. To paraphrase Dan Kennedy, never interrupt a task of known importance for a potential task of unknown importance.
- eMail. Ah, eMail. I love eMail. But even eMail has a dark side – when someone sends you an eMail in an office environment, they know that you receive it more or less instantly. This often leads people to expect a response more or less instantly. Every office has at least one person who follows up every eMail with a phone call “just to make sure you got my eMail”. If you are going to make effective use of your time during important tasks, you must not allow anyone to pressure you into providing a reply according to any timeline other than your own. Shut down your eMail client when you’re working on important tasks. Fire it up when you’re not. It’s simple, but so few people do it.
- The Person Hovering in Your Doorway. If you are in the midst of working on a truly important task, your office door should be closed. If you do not have an office with a door that closes, it is acceptable to simply not acknowledge a person who hovers in your doorway. Let the person announce himself or herself. Then you have a few options. I used to offer “5 minutes now or 30 minutes by appointment later”. I found that almost everyone prefers to take the second option, which is good. It allows you to continue your task, and it gives the other person a chance to gather some info and bring you a well thought-out issue to discuss, rather than some extemporaneous doorway rambling. It also sends a message to other would-be time-wasters that they need to have their game in order before approaching you when you’re in the middle of an important task.
I will go so far as to say that if you are not 100% unavailable for at least 2 hours a day, you probably aren’t getting much done that’s of any importance.
Now, despite the title of this post, I do not advocate being rude to people; quite the opposite. The term “necessary rudeness” is meant to acknowledge the fact that if you make yourself unavailable while working on critical items, some people will perceive you as rude, and this is OK. Most people – the ones who are themselves effective – will understand. Those that do not understand are likely to be the same people who don’t accomplish much. Open-door policies and their ilk sound fantastic in corporate seminars and on the dust jackets of business books written by guys who’ve never really run businesses, but in the real world being too available rarely does anything but allow people to take advantage of you. Ours is such a culture of accommodation that we often forget that getting things done is what keeps us prosperous. During times of critical work, it is acceptable to demand that people respect your time. During times of critical work, it is acceptable to demand that people call ahead rather than hovering in your doorway, trying to interrupt your task. During times of critical work, it is acceptable to refrain from answering faxes and eMails immediately – that the message is delivered instantly does not entitle the sender to an instant response.
I can almost hear all of you lone-wolf, “slide pizza under the door until I tell you I’m done coding” types rejoicing as you read this, ready to print copies out and tack them up in your cubicle in an attempt to justify your teamwork-avoidant behaviors at work. Don’t worry, I’m about to burst your bubble. 😛
The flip side of all this is that you must be able to determine which tasks can afford no interruptions, and which ones can. If you are unable to make this determination you will either fail to get the truly important tasks done, or you will fail to provide sufficient value to your colleagues and customers to keep yourself employed for very long. Nobody works in a vacuum, and it is critical to strike the right balance between single-minded focus on critical tasks vs. availability to support your team and customers. When you know that your task is of the highest importance, by all means turn off your ringer, shut down your eMail client and close your office door until you are done. But be surgical about it – when you switch to working on relatively routine tasks, make yourself available. And remember to extend as much respect for the time of your colleagues and customers as you demand they show for yours.
It is a difficult balance to find, and being able to find it is one of the marks of a true professional. Finding this balance it will make you more productive and much less frustrated.