How to Effectively Beat Sidetrack Syndrome
Experts estimate that we experience an average of 73 interruptions per day – and that’s just in the workplace.
Imagine it’s a busy day and you’re feeling good because you are on a roll, making real progress on an important task or project; all of a sudden the phone rings, an e-mail alarm goes off, a colleague asks for a favor, your mother-in-law stops by “spur of the moment,” you’re called to school to pick up a sick child, etc. Uh oh, sidetracked again!
Experts estimate that on average we are interrupted 73 times per day – and that’s just at work. Add family, friends and children to the mix and you may even double that number.
Your definition of “interruption” may affect one way or the other whether or not you agree with this number, but in basic terms an interruption is anything that you didn’t expect to happen at that time and that either delays or sidetracks you from what you are doing.
Regardless of the nature or inconvenience they may create, the most basic thing to keep in mind about interruptions is that they are rarely intended to be disruptive. The simple truth is that most people you come in contact with during any given day will have their own agenda that may or may not include consideration for your schedule or priorities.
Planning and adaptability are the keys to effectively avoid being sidetracked by interruptions
- Own your interruptions. Try thinking of an interruption as an offer, and your decision as to whether you will take the interruption as a counter-offer. It is okay to say “Thanks for your call/visit. I do want to speak with you, but now is not a good time. Can we talk/meet at 2:00 p.m. instead?” There … you just made a counter-offer.
- Learn to say ‘no’ without feeling guilty. It’s easy to get caught off guard with unexpected requests for favors or projects, so learning effective ‘delay’ tactics can prevent you from committing to something in order to get back to what you were doing. If you’re not sure whether you want to say no, at least avoid saying yes on the spot by telling the person you will get back to them after you’ve had time to check your schedule. This keeps you from making an on-the-spot decision you may regret later.
- Grade your interruptions. Of course some interruptions are more important than others. Technically having to pick your sick child up from school would be classified as an interruption, but reality is that’s far more important than anything else on your task list. So while there will always be exceptions, it’s important to be selective and if an interruption comes in that does not make the grade, choose to politely deflect it.
- Create do-not-disturb time. Screen calls, or set up times of the day when you answer and return calls and let that be known to friends, family and work colleagues. Utilize a “do not disturb” sign at the office when working on a tight deadline, close your office door, set “office hours” for visitors and colleagues, or go work in a conference room, library or coffee shop where you can hide. When I was working in direct sales with hundreds of representatives vying for my attention, I often escaped to an “undisclosed” location when completing important reports, or closed my door and left a sign-up sheet for people that stopped by that explained that I was on deadline and when I would surface for air.
- Use a post-it note wisely. Before you take an interruption, write down the very next action you were planning to take, how long you thought it would take, and whether you can delegate it to someone else. Often, the interruption itself is not as bad as playing catch-up after it. Taking the time to write down where you are and what you need to do to get back on track can help you save precious time.
- Plan for interruptions. If you work in an interruption-rich culture, you can only plan out 50% of your time to allow for 50% interruptions. For example, if your job is to put out “fires” all day, you can’t avoid interruptions as they are exactly what you should be handling. An example of this would be a sales manager in a car dealership whose job is to support the sales team on the floor, and to control and manage issues as they arise. This individual will be less able to avoid interruptions and should plan for them in his or her schedule, by blocking out time before or after “floor” time to get his or her project-related work done.
- Stop the interrupter. It is worth noting that research indicates that on average 80% of our interruptions come from 20% of the people we come into contact with. Try to identify the frequent interrupters and start coming up with ways to cut them off before they occur. If you know someone always calls you to confirm a meeting, send a quick text/e-mail to let him or her know you are still on as scheduled. Or better yet, explain that it is your policy not to miss meetings and you do not need a reminder, and that you will call in the rare event you need to cancel.
- When your boss is the interrupter. In a busy work environment it’s easy to occasionally find yourself being pulled in different directions at the same time; but that doesn’t mean you are helpless. For example, let’s say your boss interrupts you mid-project with a new ‘rush’ assignment; the most important thing to do is to review with him/her what’s already on your plate and explain that since taking on the new assignment will delay completion of other work, ask that he/she make the determination about which of your projects has priority.
Interruptions don’t have to sidetrack your day. The next time something happens to set you back, or derail your plans, why not try flexing your adaptability skills and ask yourself if there isn’t a way to turn the situation into a positive. By mastering a few solid strategies, you can overcome sidetrack syndrome, and enjoy a much calmer and more efficient day.
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