Being Effective in an Interruption-Rich Environment

Having both worked in a cube farm and remotely from home, reflection of the types of interruptions and ways to mitigate them are completely different for each environment. Regardless of the environment, however, the question is how to be effective in an interruption-rich environment…which, by the way, is pretty much everywhere given social media, smart phones and tablets at constant arms reach. My discovery has been to not fight the situation in order to put into place what I assume will work for me, but make a better observation of my reality and create unique solutions for becoming effective, keeping in mind the value of continuous improvement.

While working in various cube farms, I would select times of day that other people were not in the office for challenging projects, and then leave the people-heavy times for managing the short term needs in email, meetings, etc. There is more management involved that that simple strategy, but my real focus of this post is on the remote employee and consultant’s ability to still be effective while at home.

I was surprised to discover that while I was able to tune out the endless drone of people of whom I did not place a great deal of responsibility toward in the cube farm, it is almost impossible for me to tune out my four year old daughter, my husband, when he is home, and the ridiculous amounts of doorbell interruptions that are far more than I could ever dream. Add in the fact that I am completely OCD, it is extremely easy to be crazed by the sense of being ‘out of the loop’, causing insane levels of email checking that turns neurotic.

There are three major strategies that have developed over time to be effective for me in my environment of heavy travel with a four year old constantly in the wings. They are not new to any of us, but I am learning that it is not about new methods, but utilizing those methods in an effective way to manage interruptions for your specific environment that is so crucial to investigate and apply.

Flow, Pomodoro Technique, and limiting your meetings for the week are all known methods, but how to organise them in an effective manner to manage interruptions? While there are certain things within our control, 4-year olds are not, and I quickly learned that my circumstances had interruptions that were utterly out of my control. Turning off email indicators, ensuring new environments to avoid over-routine, and using personal kanban is a life-saver for me, but what about the holistic picture where we often have low control over our lives, such as children, social opportunities (unless you want to become a worker slave), travel delays, ringing doorbells, sickness, and worst of all, really stupid decisions made by management above you or your client that causes all sorts of issues?

Strategy One: I use the short-term needs in a flow throughout the day, but these tasks are usually 15 minutes or less for an hour or so at a time before I force myself to take a walk away and spend time with my child. These are not Pomodoro’s, but a lot of those small tasks inter-weaving throughout the time sitting at my computer, with no concern if I get distracted for a few moments. A few of those a day is very effective for me, but given there is unlimited small tasks, the true limit is how many of those hours I allow myself to take in a day.

Strategy Two: I still need the Pomodoro Technique for those longer term projects that simply can’t be done in small task bits. I use the Pomodoro Technique within my personal kanban cards to indicate progress and effort on those on-going projects (see blog post discussing this method).

Strategy Three: Finally, my awareness of the amount of time I need in order to prioritise my daughter, perform well in my career, and complete my doctorate means that I must limit the amount of meetings that I accept. Not only do I lose the hours to the meetings, but I also lose that amount of time that allows me to be productive with what I need to do. Unfortunately, it is very rare that I am asked to attend a meeting that is significantly helpful to me. However, in my different roles, my presence is needed for the continuation of certain committees, decisions, and systems. As a result, I do not permit more than six hours worth of meetings per week. That may seem unreasonable to keep it down to that low of a number, but the realisation of how differently my week resulted when I had more time spent on meetings strongly motivated to make it work. It is possible with creativity and negotiation. The other major focus is to stagger the calls. This works best for me because I can’t simply lock my child in a closet for four straight hours, but for others, getting all of them done in one day may work better, which is what I did when I worked in a cube farm.

Bottom line?
Be aware of your needs and how they fit into your environment. Today’s flexibility for consulting, remote workers, and even some cube farms combined with social media and connection on just about anything these days is both wonderful and overwhelming, throwing away the book of “best practices to manage time” and throwing everybody into their own self-discovery of what works for now what is unique for each individual. Realising this is the first step to truly becoming effective in your particular interruption-rich environment.

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About Marian

My passion is centered around ensuring effective learning experiences that improve people's lives. Developing a learning mindset is my ultimate goal whether working with academic programs or corporate training; formal or informal learning practices. It is my belief that our potential for agility is limited only by our capacity for learning.