Five secrets to avoiding workplace interruptions

March 3, 2005
If your workdays are shorter than your to-do lists, you're in good company.

Dale Collie
Professor West Point Military
Academy West Point, N.Y.

Even the most organized people are finding that constant interruptions get priority over planned work. Interruptions are among the top-10 workplace stressors and they're costing companies millions of dollars annually.

Many efficient people arrive early to review e-mail and get organized. Before the official day begins, however, coworkers may drop by with quick greetings and urgent conversations. How do we tell these people "We're here to work, leave me alone!" Internal information requests and outside calls further demand our attention.

Advisors say to delegate more work, get control over that phone, and let the answering machine or your assistant screen calls. Still others say you should prioritize tasks or work from home. In addition to the goal-setting and time-management techniques you may have learned, here are five proven strategies to eliminate these random, stressful interruptions.

  1. Schedule time for taking calls, responding to voice mail, checking e-mail, and accepting visitors (both internal and external). Train those around you to respect your schedule and hold them to it. When your telephone time is up, simply announce that you "have to go now."
  2. Establish procedures. Start a list of the type information people ask of you. Then prepare a logbook, policy manual, or resource book based on the information. Require others to write out the question and your response each time they come to you for information. Have them drop it in a designated mail tray for you before the end of the day along with a short paragraph on what they accomplished with your information. This strategy works in two ways. First, you capture the essential data, along with feedback about whether it was sufficient. Their notes become the basis for your policy manual. Second, people who hate to write stop bringing you questions that can be answered in some other way. The policy manuals can clear up misunderstandings and act as a reference for training new staff. Encourage everyone to use the manual to prevent unnecessary interruptions.
  3. Delegate authority along with responsibility. Many unnecessary interruptions are the result of people "feeling" like they don't have authority to make decisions. Give them authority to act according to certain principals. If your company policy is to make every delivery on time, for instance, there's no need to interrupt management for approval to change production schedules or reroute delivery trucks.
  4. Train people to make their own decisions. Major General George S. Patton (son of famed World War II General Patton) said he wouldn't have hired an aid as his number-one assistant had he not trusted this person's judgment and ability. "If you ever get fired around here, it will be because of something you've failed to do rather than something you tried to do right," said Patton. In addition, the assistant certainly knew which items were important enough to merit Major General Patton's input and held them for discussion during one of two daily "scheduled" 5 to 10-minute conferences. Likewise, schedule times to brief your boss and times when your people can brief you.
  5. Maintain frequent face-to-face communications because it contributes to good teamwork and productivity. A well-liked plant manager of a large factory, for example, walks the plant floor at the beginning of each shift. Doing so gives him a chance to see whether things are being done according to policy, and for employees, his presence is a time of greeting: "How are the kids?" "Did you have a good vacation?" "Did your son's team win last night?" People love face-to-face time with management. Approach workers on their turf and on your schedule to avoid many daily interruptions.

Schedule your time; establish procedures; delegate authority; train people to make their own decisions, and maintain face-to-face communications. These simple leadership skills will save time for you and everyone involved. Productivity will improve, and you'll boost the bottom line.

Dale Collie is a speaker, former U.S. Army Ranger, Purple Heart recipient, CEO, a professor at West Point, and author of the book, Winning Under Fire: Turn Stress Into Success the U.S. Army Way. In addition, Fast Company named Dale one of America's Fast 50 innovative leaders. For more on his book, speeches, and seminars, visit:

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