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Interruptions are Killing My To-Do List
by Dale Collie
Where do the days go? What happens to my great to-do list? At
the end of the day, I sometimes turn off the light and wonder
whether I accomplished anything at all.
Even when I start the day early, E-mail comes first - might as
well get it out of the way before people start arriving, right?
Early phone calls interrupt the mail sorting. Then another
manager comes in with fresh coffee and rumors about a potential
These interruptions are just the beginning. The phone
interrupts my work all day clients on call waiting and more
Staffers ask for short meetings which are also interrupted with
pagers, cell phones, and PDA reminders.
Each time I glance at the clock, stress levels rise; the "must
do" list comes to mind.
Advisors tell me I should delegate more work. Others say I
should prioritize my tasks or work from home.
Each interruption is important to the other person. But,
doesn't it just make you want to pull some hair out when this
happens. And I have to admit it happens more often than I
Here are five proven strategies managers can use to help
eliminate these random, stressful interruptions.
1. Schedule time
One of the easiest things to do is to schedule imes for taking
calls, respond to voice mail, check E-mail, and accept
Train those around you to respect the times you establish and
hold them to it. People won’t help if you occasionally allow
interruptions with a wave of the hand that means, "Oh, that
rule. We'll make an exception this time."
Specific schedules require you to prioritize each call and hold
yourself to a predetermined amount of time. You do need some
phone time, so block it out on your calendar - some in the
morning, some in the afternoon.
When time is up, simply announce that you "have to go now."
Don’t explain the reasons or that your on a personal schedule.
Just ask whether that covers everything or whether you should
call back during your next scheduled telephone time. You’ll
usually find out that no additional call is required.
2. Establish procedures
If people continually turn to you for answers, start a list of
the kinds of questions they ask. You'll soon see a pattern and
be able to prepare a log book, policy manual, or resource book
where they can find the answers themselves.
You can also require employees to write out the question and
your response each time they come to you for information. They
can drop it in your mail tray before the end of the day along
with a short paragraph on whether they had all the information
This strategy works in two ways. First, you capture the
essential data, along with feedback about whether it was
sufficient. Second, people stop bringing you questions that
can be answered in some other way. They hate to write
anything, and you'll probably cut your interruptions in half
the first day.
The policy manuals and log books are good references for
training new staffers, and you'll discover that employees have
been using a variety of procedures. The manuals can help you
clean this up and give a consistent response in each type
3. Delegate Authority Along With Responsibility
Many of the interruptions are the result of people "feeling"
like they don't have authority to make decisions.
It is a very simple matter to train employees to respond
according to certain principals instead of seeking approval for
If your company policy is to respond to all orders by the end
of the day, there is no need to interrupt management for
approval to work overtime or call the temp agency for help.
The policy is the policy, and we do what it takes. An executive
assistant, receptionist, or customer service clerk should be
able to make decisions without interrupting the manager.
4. Train People to Make Their Own Decisions
Some people don't like to make decisions. Many employees would
rather wait for management's decision rather than take the
initiative and do something for which they will be held
When I was aide-de-camp for Major General George S. Patton, son
of WW II famed general, he made his point clear on my very
first day on the job. In his gruff tone, he explained, "You
probably won’t get fired here for anything you do, but you’ll
get fired in a second if you forget to do something.
"You're a level-headed captain with a lot of experience. I
know you'll use your best judgment or I wouldn’t have hired
you. If I get aggravated about something, I won't fire you for
trying to do the right thing."
His advice felt a lot like a chewing out, but in the end, it
gave me the decision-making authority I needed to get the job
done without interrupting him time after time.
I certainly knew which items were important enough to merit his
input and held them for discussion during one of our
"scheduled" 5-10 minute conferences just after lunch and before
the end of the day. Schedule times to brief your boss and
times when your people can brief you.
5. Maintain Frequent Face-To-Face Communications
People really do respect you and want to feel like they have an
open line of communications. You need to keep this in mind when
you close your door to get control of your time. They haven't
been interrupting you just to keep you off balance.
You can control your schedule while giving people the
interpersonal communications needed to lower stress and make
them a part of the ongoing operation.
My dad was well liked by everyone who worked for him while he
was plant manager of a large smokestack factory. One of his
strategies involved a simple walk-through of the factory at
the beginning of each shift.
The walk-through gave him an idea of how things were being done
according to policy, but to the employees, his presence was a
time of greeting, "how are the kids," "did you have a good
vacation," and "did your son's ball team win last night."
If you approach employees on their own turf, you'll avoid many
unintended interruptions during the day. People will have a
chance to interact with you during the time you have scheduled
for it. Schedule the "walk around time."
Some of these strategies won't seem appropriate for you, but
each strategy is intended to give you a starting place. Just
grab one and try it.
No matter which method you develop, someone will complain, but
so what? If you help employees control interruptions, they
will be much less stressed and productivity will soar. You
might only be getting two good hours of work from employees
now, but once you get these interruptions under control, you
might get closer to six hours work a day.
Remember, stress is a leadership responsibility. Managers who
fail their employees in the area of controlling interruptions
are derelict in their responsibilities to the company.
Copyright 2010 - Dale Collie
Dale Collie, author and professional speaker, named
by FAST COMPANY as one of America's Fast 50 innovative
leaders. Experience as Fortune 500 executive and business
owner, US Army Ranger and professor at West Point. His
book "Winning Under Fire" (McGraw-Hill) is published in English, Russian, and Chinese. www.CourageBuilders.com
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