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You’re working on a major project, and you’ve blocked out a few hours to really knock it out. But just as you’re getting into the zone, your boss stops by to drop off some paperwork. Then your co-worker comes over to chat about next week’s meeting. Your phone rings. Your email dings. You face one disruption after another. And when you finally get back to your project, all of your brilliant new thoughts (not to mention motivation) are long gone.

Unfortunately, managing these interruptions isn’t as easy as closing your office door (just ask the colleague thinking “should I or shouldn’t I knock?”) or telling your co-workers to go away. (I gained a bit of a reputation at a prior job for a death stare I gave when I was too busy to chat—let’s just say, not the best approach.)

But, as I learned, there are some simple, effective ways to refocus after interruptions or, even better, prevent them in the first place. Use the following ideas to stop unanticipated breaks from throwing you off your game.

Avoiding Interruptions

The best way to minimize interruptions is to take some proactive steps to avoid them. Before you get started on a major project, try these approaches to make sure you actually get the productive time you were planning for.

1. Communicate With Your Colleagues

Let’s revisit the closed door scenario: How will your colleagues know when you’re eating lunch at your desk versus finishing a grant application before a major deadline? Answer: tell them. In a small office, feel free to send around an email that says, “I’m on deadline for the annual report today—please only reach out with items that can’t wait until tomorrow.” In a larger office, clue in a few key people, including your boss, your assistant, and your immediate officemates. They’ll be less likely to disturb you and can also help pass on the message to those headed your way.

2. Use Your Technology

The Do Not Disturb button on your phone isn’t just there for decoration, much like your Out of Office message isn’t there only for time off. So, take advantage of this customizable technology and set up messages to let your colleagues know that you’ll be unavailable. Change your Out of Office response to say that you’ll respond to emails tomorrow. Block out time on your Outlook calendar as “Unavailable—Name of Project” so well-meaning colleagues won’t choose that time to stop by for a chat. And don’t be afraid to DND your phone. Non-urgent messages can sit in voicemail for a few hours, and if someone needs you, they’ll come find you. (Note: This approach does not work when you do it every Tuesday. Use it for big, time-sensitive projects only.)

3. Have a Go-To Phrase

Is it possible to prevent an interruption when someone is literally walking up to your desk? You don’t want to ignore her or cut her off to explain how busy you are, so the key here is to pre-empt her: Have a phrase that you always use to start (and end) a conversation when you’re too busy to talk. When you see someone coming toward you, say, “I’m in the middle of something right now—can I check back with you tomorrow?” or “I’m swamped right now, can you send me a meeting request?” This way, she knows following up is on your to-do list, but that now’s not a good time.

Refocusing After an Interruption

Of course, while you can minimize interruptions, you can’t always avoid them altogether, particularly when a time-sensitive issue arises. When the inevitable occurs, here’s how to quickly get back on track.

1. If You’re Brainstorming

Let’s say you’re thinking through an upcoming campaign or a way to approach a potential partner organization when an urgent email arrives. Now what? Though your first instinct might be to drop everything and respond, try to pause for 20 seconds and jot down a handful of key words so you won’t lose your ideas altogether. If it’s helpful, include arrows of how they connect or any other symbols to jog your memory. It doesn’t have to look pretty or make sense to anyone else—all that matters is that you can piece together your thoughts when you sit back down to work.

2. If You’re Writing

One of the most frustrating things about being disturbed when you’re writing is feeling like you had a rhythm and now you’ve lost it. Instead of expecting yourself to pick up where you left off, set aside a few minutes to go back and re-read the last few paragraphs you’ve written. Use this time to make mental notes of what you were thinking or where you were going next and let them guide you back on track.

3. If You Can’t Refocus

Sometimes refocusing just isn’t possible. Maybe you’re on edge about being disturbed (a fire alarm, today—really?) or just feel like you lost your mojo. In this case, don’t force it. Allow yourself a little time to decompress and stand up, walk around, or go get a cup of coffee. It’s space for you to ease back into thinking about the project again (or let yourself be totally distracted if need be), so you’ll be able start fresh when you get back to your desk.

 

Unfortunately, interruptions happen, so it's how you deal with them that matters. Be proactive and have some smart strategies to get back on track, and you’ll be more productive (not to mention less intimidating to your colleagues).