Managing Interruptions and Your Time

By Danita Johnson Hughes, Ph.D.

According to the great American inventor, Thomas Edison, “Time is really the only capital any human being has and the one thing he can’t afford to waste.” Consider that:

  • Time gets lost. People kill time. Time flies. It gets wasted.
  • Time weighs heavy on our hands.
  • We spend time. Time passes. It drags on or it hurries by. Those behind bars are said to be doing time.
  • Sometimes, we have no time left; we’re out of time.

The perception of not having enough time for the things we must do or, just as importantly, the things we want to do, is a leading cause of stress in society today. This is quite apparent in the healthcare industry, where workers are continually asked to do more. Continued exposure to stress can have an adverse effect on both a person’s physical and mental health.

Because you spend a great deal of your time at work, meeting your employer’s expectations becomes increasingly important. Managing your time effectively, however, is often hampered by interruptions at work. Constant interruptions can significantly hinder effort, curtail creativity, and decrease productivity by disrupting thought processes and workflows, causing individuals to lose focus and take longer to complete tasks. A high rate of interruptions can be a serious issue in the workplace and can be a barrier to success.

A Typical Day at Work: Think back to your last day at work. I bet it went something like this. You arrive at work, sit down, and slowly begin to get into a groove. You begin working on that report that’s due at the end of the day. After about an hour and a half, you quit to go to a meeting that was scheduled a few days ago. After the meeting, you think, “What a waste of time. They could have just sent a memo for us to read and not interrupted my work day.”

You go back to your office and try to get back to that report. The phone rings. It’s Tom. You decide not to answer. Whatever it is, it can wait. Two minutes later, Tom is knocking on your door. You bite your tongue and invite him in as you’re thinking, “Can’t he take a hint? I’m busy!”  He spends twenty minutes discussing the meeting you just had and how he thought it was such a waste of time. He leaves.

The phone rings again. It’s Jenny. You don’t answer. You really need to get this report completed by the end of the day. Jenny sends you an email. You open it. She needs to discuss a matter of mutual concern regarding another work matter. She’d like to do this at your earliest convenience. You email her back that you will meet with her later in the afternoon. Gee!  Another meeting!

While emailing her, you notice several emails received since yesterday. You think, “Maybe I’ll read some of these and get them out of the way.”  Two hours later, it’s past lunchtime and you haven’t eaten. You take a break for lunch. When you return, Jenny is waiting to start the meeting you agreed to this morning.

Jenny leaves. Before you restart your computer, you decide to take a bathroom break. You run into John in the hallway. He comments that he hasn’t seen you all day and wants to know what you’ve been up to. You tell him you have a report due and need to get back to it. The two of you talk for ten minutes.

You finish the conversation and complete that trip to the bathroom, resolving to get back to that report as soon as you get to your office. In your office, you remember a file you need to finish the report. You don’t remember where you put it. After 30 minutes, you locate it. Finally, you get back to your computer.

As you’re typing away on your computer, your boss walks in, pats you on the shoulder, and wants to know how it’s going. You try to keep a straight face as you’re thinking, “It could be going better if I could get around all these interruptions.”  After a light conversation, you’re alone again.

Time Stress: Does this sound familiar? If so, you may be experiencing “time stress.”  Learning to manage your time more effectively by controlling interruptions is the key to reducing stress and being more productive and successful on your job.

Here are some helpful strategies for taking control of your time and using it more effectively:

  • Regularly organize and prioritize your work.
  • Assess the types of interruptions you experience most. Are they necessary or not?
  • Distinguish between available time and time that is off limits.
  • Postpone unnecessary interruptions until you have some available time.
  • Be willing to say “no.”  There are only so many hours in a day and only so much you can do with that time.
  • Recognize that some interruptions are unavoidable. When these occur, encourage the interrupter to get to the point quickly. Don’t engage in “small talk.”  Establish how much time you have initially – 10 minutes, for example – and stick to it.

Time management is a journey. By keeping control of your time and managing how it is spent, you may find that you have just a little more to spend. Thanks for taking the time to read this.

Danita Johnson Hughes, Ph.D. is a healthcare industry executive, public speaker, and author of the forthcoming Turnaround. Through her work, she inspires people to dream big and understand the role of personal responsibility in personal and professional success. In her first book, Power from Within, Danita shares her Power Principles for Success that helped her overcome meager beginnings and achieve professional, community, and personal success. For more information email danitahughes@edgewatersystems.org.

[From the June/July 2011 issue of AnswerStat magazine]