Whenever I’m writing a book, I never get out of bed,

because if I get out of bed,

I always see something that needs dusting.

.Jessamyn West

Interruptions can plague anyone who is trying to accomplish a dream, but this seems to be especially true for those who are running a business from home. Years ago, my mother called to ask me to run an errand for her and prefaced her request by saying, “Since you don’t work, dear….”

Such disruptions can not only impede progress, they can cause us to lose sight of our goals.

An interruption occurs when a lower priority intrudes on a higher one. We usually think of interruptions as being caused by another person who distracts us from what we are doing, but we can also interrupt ourselves by letting petty things take up our time and attention.

Sometimes, of course, it makes sense to give into a brief distraction. What is less desirable is allowing time-consuming interruptions to become the norm.

The best way to handle interruptions is to prevent them before they happen and that requires taking a proactive stance. If you sense that distractions are sabotaging your efforts, keep track for a day or two of every interruption you encounter.

Is there a pattern? Are there people who keep showing up? What causes you to be distracted?

Create Boundaries

Your first line of defense is to establish boundaries with those people who may have gotten used to your availability.  “No, I can’t run over and help you turn your mattress right now, but I will be glad to help you this evening,” is one way to handle requests that interfere with the project you need to complete.

One woman with teenaged children took to wearing a hat  when she was working to signal her family that she was to be left alone. Another gave her children permission to interrupt her only if someone was bleeding.

Whether it’s your family or friends, you’ll lower your frustration level considerably by explaining in advance that you are serious about your business and will be unavailable at certain times.  Don’t assume that other people will know that you don’t want interruptions. Tell them when it is and isn’t appropriate to contact you.

Limit Your Accessibility

People who are highly productive tend to guard their time carefully. You wouldn’t expect that your favorite novelist, who is working on her next book, would stop in the middle of writing to have a phone chat with you, would you?

Your work matters, too, and deserves your full attention when you’re creating, inventing or planning.

Yet many people seem oblivious to the importance of limited accessibility and the mobile phone has made it possible to reach them anytime, anywhere.

Unless you deliver babies or repair computers, there’s probably no reason to be on call twenty-four hours a day.

Since the telephone is most frequently the instrument of interruption, it makes sense to be its master. Some people find it easiest to have a regular time to receive and return calls. Your answering message could even explain to callers that you will get back to them between 2 and 4—or whatever fits your schedule.

It’s About Time

Preventing unnecessary interruptions falls under the general heading of Good Time Management. “Without the management of time,” said William Reiff, “you will soon have nothing left to manage.”

If you have no plan for slowing the flow of intrusions, they’ll keep coming. You may not have a battalion of receptionists and secretaries to protect you, but you can find creative ways to limit interruptions. Consider a quiet location other than your office for doing some of your work, for instance.

Another helpful tool is The 80/20 Principle by Richard Koch who points out, “Twenty percent of what we do leads to 80 percent of the results; but 80 percent of what we do leads to only 20 percent.”

When we identify what that productive 20 percent is, everything shifts.

Know Your Priorities

“Things that matter most,” said Goethe, “must never be at the mercy of things that matter least.” Start every day with a brief review of what you want to accomplish and determine what has the highest priority.

Knowing what matters is what makes it possible to finish that novel while the dust piles up—or to give your partner your undivided attention because you’ve finished your work for the day.

3 Responses to “Handling Interruptions”

  1. Terri Belford

    This is probably the most difficult part of working at home. I had to work hard in the early years to “train” family and friends to treat my home office time as they would anyone else’s “at work” time. Even working in my van at the beach, my friends learned not to interrupt. A friend walking by on the boardwalk told another friend not to stop by Terri’s “office with out an apt.”
    Still, it’s the self imposed distractions that I struggle with. (getting up to refill the coffee without getting side tracked by something else in the kitchen.) Thanks for the reminder, Barbara, that knowing what matters and prioritizing is how we stay focused and accomplish goals.

  2. Anna Barlowe

    I read somewhere recently (I think it was in the blog Zen Habits), that you should figure out what the one thing is that you want to accomplish each day, and then do that FIRST. I have started doing this, and I find it really helps. Then even if you do nothing else, you have the most important thing under your belt, and you feel a sense of accomplishment. Nice.

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