How to Handle Interruptions without Pushing Others Away or Resisting Life

Colorful interruptions

A few weeks back I got one of those dreaded early morning phone calls. It was my mother and the conversation started with I have a problem. It was another water leak in the house (the third to be precise).

My day was interrupted with something that’s not only annoying, but rather expensive in terms of time and money.

I had to stop everything and deal with the problem. And I’m still dealing with it.

Life tends to interrupt in the most inopportune times. Or maybe it’s always the wrong time when we don’t want to deal with something.

Luckily for us, major and urgent interruptions don’t occur that often. But when they do, we’re forced to re-prioritize them over anything else. And that’s not an issue because of their nonrecurring nature.

When I thought of interruptions I always thought of the big stuff—serious illness, accidents, water damage or some other significant peril (in insurance terms).

For a long time I’ve ignored the little insignificant stuff—a phone call, giving someone a ride, an email, or instant message. We don’t think of them much, but they do add up over time.

Most time management and productivity advice recommends minimizing interruptions by blocking your time, disconnecting, or saying no to the demands of the moment.

I have been okay with blocking some time to do what I want, but I can’t say no to someone who wants me to help, or deal with something.

The question that I wanted to answer is this: how can we handle interruptions without pushing others away or resisting life?

Let’s take a look first at the nature of interruptions.

The four types of interruptions

1- Minor and frequent

These are distracting things like notifications and messages, the phone ringing, someone at the door, a thought pops into your head and you want to follow it, instead of focusing on your work.

They all appear to be harmless. A few minutes won’t be that bad. If it’s a one off interruption then yes. But more often than not, these interruptions happen on a daily, if not hourly, basis.

Add all the minutes you stop during the day and multiply by the days of the week and you’ll see how much time (and energy) they consume.

2- Minor and infrequent

A one-time interruption that’s not important may not be a big deal.

For example someone places garbage in front of your door. It’s annoying, but you can deal with it in a few minutes. And it doesn’t happen again.

3- Important/Urgent and frequent

Something like being contacted more than you’d like to be reminded of the bills you need to pay, a repair at your house that you keep patching up but not fully dealing with it and it keeps coming up again (think of a leaky tap as an example).

The frequency is not based on the issue itself but on how we deal with it. It’s a matter of making it a priority and dealing with it.

4- Important/Urgent and infrequent

These are the things that will redirect your life and become the number one priority. You can’t avoid them, and you can’t defer dealing with them.

What we do here is buck up, do what we need to do, and let go for everything else till the issue is resolved, or we have closure.

Out of the four types, the two that need to be addressed most of the time are: frequent interruptions, both major and minor.

How to handle frequent interruptions

This is where we get to make choices that help us, hopefully without upsetting others.

1- Eliminate interruption gateways.

The ways to interruption are usually known to us: open door, availability by phone, and notifications turned on. These set the expectation of a prompt response.

We can restrict access ahead of time without offending anyone. This means shut off notifications. Turn off the phone, don’t answer the door at certain hours. If you work in an office, close the door and have a sign that says you’re busy and will be available at a certain hour.

When you determine ahead of time how you handle interruptions, no one can take it personally. It’s much better than having to tell someone I don’t want to deal with you right now.

2- Create a minor tasks and communications time zone.

In this zone you check notifications, respond to messages, return phone calls, talk to people, and do what needs to be done.

This is not rocket science but sometimes it feels like it is. How can we do everything and not feel drained and robbed of valuable time?

It’s hard to gauge how long anything takes, let alone more than a few daily minor tasks. This is why in the beginning keep an hour or two and see how things turn out.

As you work through your minor tasks and communications, assess how long it takes you. And leave a bit of extra free time.

3- Make the urgent and important a priority.

Do them as soon as you can. Put them on your schedule, or do them first thing. Whatever you have to do to get them done and out of the way.

Even if the issue is something you loathe, accept that it’s your priority in this moment. By fate, or chance, it’s yours to deal with. Do the best you can, and let go of resisting.

4- Don’t let waiting derail you.

One of the most painful things is putting something on hold and not knowing when you’ll get back to it. I tend to fret and waste my time and energy worrying about when I’ll get to it. And that’s not helpful.

The best way is to keep it on your list (at least mentally) as a potential interruption in the future. This prepares you for yet another interruption once the project becomes active again. When it’s time to restart, make it a priority and deal with it. Otherwise, let it be and work on your current important stuff.

5- Reduce your own actions and communications.

Instead of wanting others to interrupt us less, let’s focus on our own behavior.

How much of what you have to do, or say is really important?

How much of it do you have to deal with today?

Maybe your friends send you messages daily on Facebook. You don’t have to check them every day and respond right away. Tell your friends that you only check Facebook once a week. If there is something important, they need to email you instead of messaging. This way you deal with the important stuff via email only.

It’s more than okay to check your social stuff once or twice a week. That by itself will clear some time to deal with other interruptions.

Think of all the things you have to read, respond to, or do. How much of it can you eliminate?

Below are a couple of questions that might be helpful.

  • Is this really important to me?
  • Do I really want to do this right now and let go of all the other stuff?

If you answer both questions with a resounding yes, go for it. But if you start feeling anxious about all the other things you need to do, then it’s time to think and choose the priority that’s more satisfying and calming.

The above five steps are meant to get us to change our own thinking and prioritizing habits, without expecting others to change. When we work with this mindset, we reduce the chance of feeling frustrated or upsetting others.

Interruptions are part of life—by circumstance or the necessity of human interconnectedness. We can’t avoid them, we can’t fight them, and we can’t eliminate them.

We can work with interruptions to better understand our own priorities, to test our strength and resolve, and most importantly to be there for the people we love. It’s the latter that makes interruptions all the worth having.

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