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Curing Interruptitus

Posted: 02/19/08 08:00 AM ET

I often get this question/pushback as I'm teaching: "All this personal productivity methodology sounds fine and good, but what about all those interruptions that plague me during my day?"

There are plenty of traditional "time management" suggestions about dealing with these "time wasters." Don't feel like you have to answer the phone when it rings or e-mail when it arrives. Close your door. Learn how to elegantly suggest setting a meeting to discourage random requests for informal business chatter. Be busy (and look it!). Stand up while someone talks to you (vs. at-the-coffee-table-in-the-living-room ergonomics). Put "open office" back in the museum of stupid ideas. Great tips. But I'd rather not waste time dealing with time wasters. For most of the people I interact with, the standard tips are either self-evident and in play, or impossible.

It would perhaps be easier to solve these issues if interruptions were obviously "wrong" for you when they appear - if phones had a different ring when they were a wrong number, or your boss's face turned lime green when the answer to the question he's bothering you with was in an email you sent him two days ago. But people who show up wanting something from you sometimes DO need something from you immediately, even from your perspective. The phone ringing might be the person you're waiting to hear from. There is possibly something in your email that you want to know, now. And, oh yeah, your boss is your boss.

So I don't spend a lot of time on time management tips. Not that they don't have value - many of them do. But there are a billion exceptions to the rules. I have a more radical suggestion. Two, actually.

(1) Keep the inventory of everything you have to do current, complete, effectively organized, regularly reviewed, and instantly retrievable at a moment's notice, while maintaining regular thinking about the projects and bigger things that you really want to accomplish. Then you can much more confidently and maturely differentiate between inappropriate disturbances and unexpected opportunities or useful interactions as they show up.

The biggest problem enveloping this whole issue of interruptions is that at any point in time most people don't really know all the things they have to do--they just know they have tons. So then when something unforeseen pops into their face, it just exacerbates an already sensitive ambiguity. ANY surprise feels like salt in the wounds. It's almost as if people are saying, "I really don't know what I ought to be doing right now, and this new thing is most likely NOT what I should be doing right now (though I'm not entirely sure about that either!) But please stop reminding me that I don't know what's going on!!"

(2) Get your act together about how easily and quickly you can take in any input, place-hold it safely, and effortlessly glide back to whatever you were or now need to be doing, without having to process or complete it in that moment, knowing it will get handled at a better time.

Most people don't trust their own systems and behaviors enough to easily and rapidly capture and keep track of things that come into their world, without having to complete them in that moment. So they wind up feeling compelled to deal with the input and complete something about it, instead of simply collecting a placeholder that they trust can be processed much better at some other time. If you get really good with your own in-basket, trusting you'll process it to zero soon enough, you can scratch a note about anything in a five seconds, throw it into IN, and turn quickly back to whatever you were doing, hardly skipping a beat. If you don't have that level of rigor with your collection tools and processing behaviors, you are likely to feel like you're the victim of things demanding your attention - you know they do have to be dealt with, and don't trust your system to remember and remind.

I empathize with the frustrations of people who start to get better control of their own world but have to deal with a lot of organizational Neanderthals who would rather victimize everyone else with their random and scattered focus. Bosses undermine productivity by interrupting staff simply because they don't like to type emails and lack their own trusted personal systems. And we could all give much better customer service if it weren't for the customers. But the more insane or inane your environment, the more critical it is that you manage what you CAN manage, so you deal with incoming from the driver's seat, not the back seat. Don't let mosquitoes ruin your safari.

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You can find out more about David Allen and GTD at Davidco.com.

The David Allen Company is a professional training, coaching, and management consulting organization, based in Ojai, California. Its purpose is to enhance performance and improve the quality of life by providing the world's best information, education, and products in the fields of personal productivity and work/life balance.