Interruptions only get in the way if you let them

Someone whose self-management techniques I’ve always admired told me recently of the interesting way they tackle important tasks at work. Last thing each day, they set themselves a single priority task for the next morning. This is selected from the ‘to do’ list and should take anything from 5 minutes to a couple of hours. When they come into work, they complete that task before doing anything else (except possibly making a coffee). No email checking. No distractions. Even the phone doesn’t get answered.

That sounds hard, I said. And what if there’s been an important email or voicemail overnight? How do you feel if you don’t even know about that until mid-morning?

Their reply was that it’s a hypothetical problem, because it’s never caused an issue for them yet. It’s just one of those self-imposed worries most of us put in place to avoid being bold.

Here’s the thing, they continued. Suppose you have an important meeting first thing in the morning. Might you defer even checking email or voicemail until the meeting was over? Probably. What if you’re off sick? Might you defer checking email or voicemail until the next day? Quite likely. So when you have no choice, ignoring interruptions is easy. They only get in the way if you let them.

I thought about this yesterday when I had just such an unexpected meeting, which meant I didn’t get to my desk until 11am. Normally I’d have dealt with 5 overnight emails first thing, then over the course of the next two hours, received (and I hope dealt with) 5 more emails and a telephone call. Instead, at 11am, I had 10 emails and 1 voicemail to deal with. It was all done before lunch, I wasn’t more than those two hours (the length of the meeting) behind ‘schedule’ and nobody complained about a tardy response. Just as I didn’t complain when one of the overnight emails I replied to returned the message “I’m out of the office today”. It happens.

The psychology behind why we prioritise other people’s problems before our own is quite interesting. You will, I’m sure, have your own opinions.

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