Let’s say you’ve done the hard work of creating a to-do list, planning your week, and structuring your life to achieve your goals.

If you’re like most people, no matter what your intentions are, urgent distractions and interruptions are bound to pop up, threatening to take you off track. When this happens, you’re likely to feel like you’re between a rock and a hard place, uncertain of what’s most important.

At the same, while interruptions are often annoying or frustrating, sometimes they’re not. For instance, you might be going about your day, crossing things off your to-do list, when suddenly your friend invites you to an impromptu dinner. Your plan was to work late tonight—what do you do?

You may leave behind what you planned to do, thinking that if you attend to the distractions that come your way, you’ll eventually get to your goals. The risk of abandoning your plans, however, is that at the end of your day or week or month or even your life, you may look back and wonder where all that time went, feeling as though you let yourself and the people you care about down.

Whether or not you fulfill your biggest callings in life will largely come down to how skillful you are at dealing with distractions and interruptions.

The key to living your calling and enjoying your life is to develop the habit of shifting from reacting unconsciously to choosing consciously. On the surface, these can seem indistinguishable, but the difference is night and day.

Reacting unconsciously looks like complaining there’s never enough time, while not taking action to devote time to what’s most important. Consciously choosing looks like being aware of how you respond to the forces that shape your life and accepting responsibility for the choices you make (even when a voice in your head says you don’t have a choice). Steven Covey, author of First Things First, called this “exercising integrity in the moment of choice.”

In our culture, it’s quite common to have a victim mentality around time—to act as though life is happening to you and to blame the fact that you’re not achieving your goals on a lack of time.

When you take on too much and don’t say no, rather than taking responsibility for your own needs, feelings of resentment, irritation, or anger may arise every time someone makes a request. There can be some comfort in believing you’re powerless to create change. However, the truth is that other people have every right to ask for what they want, and you have every right to choose your response.

I’m not pretending that it’s completely within your control to get what you want or access the resources to meet your needs. Poverty and oppression are real things, and sometimes your only choice is to choose your attitude. I’m also not asking you to pretend that change doesn’t take time—it usually does. Effective movements for social change often take years, decades, even centuries to reach the vision of the original organizers. What I am saying is that we create change by making many small choices, one after another.

To help you create the life you desire, I invite you to take the following steps to dealing with distractions and interruptions more effectively.

Step One: Choose Consciously

When an interruption or opportunity comes up that you hadn’t anticipated and you’re not sure how to respond, take a moment to pause, get centered, and notice any urge to react arising from your belly, chest, or other parts of your body. Remember that you’re facing a choice and get curious about exactly what your choices are. Ask yourself the following questions—

  • What are the options that I can see?
  • How do I feel when I consider saying yes?
  • How do I feel when I consider saying no?
  • What does my gut say?
  • What is truly most important right now?

Keep in mind that you can only do your best with the information you have at the moment, and give yourself permission to change direction in the future if you discover new information.

Step Two: Turn Off Electronic Devices

The key to cultivating work-life balance is to draw clearer boundaries between your work and home lives. When you’re at work, be present to your work—limit interruptions from home. When you’re at home, be present with your loved ones—limit interruptions from work.

Of course, being present is easier said than done, but one of the simplest ways to do this is to eliminate electronic interruptions. Here are some steps to take in this direction—

  • Don’t check emails first thing after waking up.
  • Schedule regular, screen-free downtime.
  • Don’t answer the phone when you’re in the middle of important tasks.
  • Keep your phone on silent and only return calls.
  • For about $3 per month, purchase visual voicemail so that you don’t need to listen to voicemail recordings but instead can quickly see them.
  • Take notifications off your phone.

Step Three: Ask People to Stop Interrupting

If someone interrupts you on a regular basis, find a neutral time to talk with them so that neither of you feels caught off-guard by the conversation, and ask them to please stop interrupting you. Tell family members or friends who interrupt you frequently at work that from now on, unless there’s a dire emergency (and define what emergency means to you), you’ll only be able about to talk after work hours.

If co-workers interrupt you, consider creating “open office hours” every day or several times per week during which they can feel free to bring you any concerns, questions, thoughts.

Then, stick to your boundaries. If they call, let it go to voicemail. If they knock on your door and ask “Have you got a minute?” ask if it’s an emergency, and if it’s not, say “Not right now.” If they try to insist on talking to you and it’s not an emergency, have another clear conversation letting them know your boundaries.

I realize that in many places, dealing with distractions and interruptions may entail shifting workplace culture. Indeed, a cultural change is what’s needed in many workplaces if we are to be as effective as we say we want to be and sustain our energy for the long-haul.

Please share any “ahas!” or questions about dealing with distractions and interruptions below.

I’d love to hear from you! And, click here to learn more about how executive coaching can help you use your time efficiently and finally have time for all the important stuff.

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