Wishing You Had Fewer Interruptions?

Here’s how to politely stay on track.

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Have you ever wished that you had fewer interruptions at work? We all know that we are more productive when we are focused. However, in some workplaces, it can feel virtually impossible to concentrate on the task at hand. I can definitely relate to this challenge. My first job after college was a full-time sales position in the front-office for the Washington Wizards, a professional basketball team based in Washington, D.C.

As you might imagine, my clients and colleagues loved to talk about sports. Clients would frequently call to discuss the latest team news, and colleagues would often drop by each other’s workspaces to do the same. This definitely made work fun. There are not many jobs where talking about sports can actually be considered part of your job. However, this also made it really challenging to focus and get meaningful work done.

Since my compensation in this role was tied to my productivity, I needed to be very deliberate with my time. However, I didn’t want to be seen as unfriendly with colleagues and clients. So, I developed some strategies that made it easier to concentrate- without ostracizing the people around me. Let’s look at three practical ways to eliminate unexpected interruptions at work, so that you can get more done in less time, too.

First of all, you can wear headphones at work. If you work in an open environment (or have an office with a glass door), this is a subtle, polite, and effective way to tell people not to interrupt you. Listening to peaceful music can also block out background noise around you and help you focus more intensely.

Secondly, an option for people without full-time access to a private office is to find what I refer to as an Occasional Office for use during times when you really do not want to be disturbed. This could be an unused room in your office building or a location outside your office, like a home office, a local library, or a quiet area of a hotel lobby. In addition to helping you get away from the usual distractions in your standard workspace, an Occasional Office can also provide a nice change of scenery. While some companies may not allow this, it’s worth looking into or asking for permission every now and then.

Thirdly, you can also keep your email and social media accounts closed, and keep your phone off, on airplane mode, or simply not accessible during periods when you want to concentrate. In fact, why not make that your default setting at work? This idea might sound outrageous to you if you are used to being glued to your phone and email all day long. However, unless your primary job responsibility is to support someone else, your performance is probably measured by much more important metrics than your email response time. While some roles (like an executive assistant) may truly need to be available by email for virtually every minute of the workday, chances are that your position does not require or truly reward such behavior.

How many incoming emails and calls really need to be handled within seconds? You could still check your inboxes and devices every thirty or sixty minutes, if you feel compelled to do so. What you do not want to do is leave them open, buzzing, notifying, and interrupting you all day long.

Research has found that checking email less frequently can also reduce your stress. In one study, scientists at the University of British Columbia asked a group of people to check their email as often they could for one week. During another week, the participants in the experiment were asked to limit themselves to three email sessions. The researchers found that participants were significantly less stressed and felt much better overall during the week when they restricted their email time.[i]

Keeping your inbox and devices closed, off, or not easily accessible is an example of “removing the cue,” a powerful strategy for breaking bad habits. In this case, the “cue” is an incoming email, text, notification, or call that triggers a bad habit to break your concentration and deal with the message immediately. Rather than try to resist the temptation to read and respond to an incoming message, why not remove the temptation altogether?

You can try to multitask, or you can focus. You cannot do both. More than once while finishing the manuscript for Work Stronger, my brother left me a voicemail complaining that my phone was off and that this made it impossible to reach me live. Each time that I called him back, I reminded him that was the point.

Excerpted from Work Stronger


Amanda, Schupak, “Stressed? Close your email,” CBS News, December 9, 2014, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/stressed-close-your-email/; Kostadin Kushlev, “Checking email less frequently reduces stress,”Computers in Human Behavior Volume 43 (February 2015): 220-228. 

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