How to Deal With Chronic Interrupters During Your Work Day

Oct 31, 2016
Post Masthead

You’re on a roll. The ideas are flowing, your fingers are practically flying over your keyboard and … “Hey, check this out!” Sigh, you’ve been interrupted again to check the latest cat meme or to look at someone else’s work or idea right now.

This mimics daily life for many people in creative roles - the annoyance of being interrupted at just the wrong moment, often by the same offenders.

In the case of location-independent freelancers, many report that having friends or relatives understand that they’re actually at work and respecting those boundaries can be challenging. How many of you have had phone calls or knocks on the door in the middle of the day, wanting you to do something because they know you’re there?

Chronic interrupters can create serious time-sink and a lack of productivity during your work day. Here are some strategies for dealing with them:

#1. Set boundaries with family and friends

If you set your own schedule, word soon gets around your family or friends and freelancers will often find that they take that as a signal to mean you can be “flexible.” To some people, flexible will mean you’re always that person available at a moment’s notice to help them move from their apartment, do some kind of household task or drop everything and come down to the pub to help them celebrate their day off.

We know, you don’t want to let down family or friends, but you can’t have their interruptions threatening your ability to do the work that produces a living for you either. You’re going to have to set some firm boundaries...

Create “work hours”

You’re not tied to any kind of schedule, nevertheless, plenty of well-known creative types followed a set routine through their workday. Set work hours for yourself and let people know that you will only be responding to work-related messages within that time.

For example, you might decide that between 8am and 2pm every day is your “sacred” time to take care of business. Make it clear that you are only available if there is an emergency during that time as you need to spend your time doing the work that pays the bills. (They don’t want you to end up living on their couch anyway, do they?).

Request notice

This is a suggestion from Lisa at The Drifting Desk. You could try telling friends and family that you need a certain amount of notice to take part in any kind of social activities during your work day (she suggests two days).

This is because it’s easy to fall into a pattern of accepting impromptu invitations that will impact your productivity. Routine is as much about discipline for yourself as setting boundaries with others.

Make sure they actually understand what you do

Sometimes freelancers battle with a view from others unfamiliar with their work that they’re not really in a “serious” profession. They may think you’re doing something temporary or on the side and that you’re not going to be serious about it anyway.

Make sure friends and family understand exactly what it is that you do and the efforts you need to make for it. This will hopefully help them to take you seriously and respect your time!

#2. Be up front

Sometimes the subtle approach will fly straight over the head of a chronic interrupter at work. There has to be a middle ground between outright telling them to go away and trying to drop ineffective hints.

First of all, you need to keep your cool. You don’t want to damage the relationship with the person and aggression is rarely useful in a work context. There is a big difference between being aggressive and being assertive.

Being up front with someone in a healthy way at work involves asserting yourself in such a way that you get your point across, at the same time as communicating that you don’t mean any offense to the person.

That means you don’t need to be rude, try something like:

“Do you mind if I stop by and catch up with you on that later? I need to finish this report first.”

See? You wouldn’t be upset by a statement like that, would you? Deliver it with a smile and sincerity and you’ll find most people will completely understand.

#3. Use signals

There are certain universal signs (otherwise known as the “subtle” approach) that help to let people know you’re busy and it’s not a good time to interrupt. These might include:

  • Wearing headphones (hey, even if you’re not listening to anything, you can at least pretend you haven’t heard the interrupter).
  • Shutting your office door.
  • Putting up a sign - hey, it’s not so subtle, but people in busy offices have used this to good effect.


Like this guy, maybe? Source: Metro

#4. Gamify productivity

Why not up the ante on productivity and gamify it with your colleagues? Find some common goals you can work toward and encourage others to participate. For example, where you and others share common tasks, could you set a challenge to see who gets through the most? Gamification can be a good more subtle way to keep others on task so they don’t have time to interrupt you.

#5. Give them something to do

If the chronic interrupter is once again at your desk, tell them you’re glad they’ve stopped by! You’re super-busy trying to get a presentation finished off for this afternoon’s meeting, but could they take a look at the monthly reporting for you?

This will tend to produce a win-win for you. On the one hand, if they don’t want to help you out they’ll probably make excuses and leave, on the other hand, if they are prepared to help, not only will they leave, but they’ll take some of your workload with them. Success!

#6. Build interruptions into your schedule

The fact is we need our breaks during our work days. No one is productive sitting at their desk for hours on end without proper breaks. You’ll be fatigued, lose focus and often your creativity will suffer.

Chunking your tasks then building in time for breaks can be a great way to build a routine that deters interrupters while you’re working. For example, if you tend to work in 90 minute bursts before taking ten to fifteen minutes break, they know to expect that you’ll take a break and will hopefully wait until then to catch up with you.

#7. Find your own space

Sometimes you’re left with no other option but to seek refuge elsewhere. At work, you may not have a lot of choices, but perhaps mention to your manager that you need a space to power through some work uninterrupted. There may be a spare office space you can use, or even an offsite location, such as a cafe with Wi-Fi.

If you are home-based, consider looking at co-working spaces. They are set up with location-independent workers in mind and provide the right environment for some serious focus. As an added bonus, you will often meet great contacts in those kinds of places who are able to hook you up with more work or become clients themselves.

Final Thoughts

At some point, everyone deals with interruptions that risk your productivity during work days. If you want to deal with them effectively, you should first of all ensure you’ve set some boundaries around interrupting you, whether that is for co-workers or relatives.

Be direct about when you’re busy and when you’d like to be able to catch up with them. Try signals such as closed doors, headphones or signs, but if nothing else is getting through just speak up as assertively and politely as possible. People may or may not understand, but at least you’ve made your point.