Constantly Interrupted? It's YOUR fault!

Last Updated Mar 15, 2010 10:05 AM EDT

"Hey, I see your door is closed, but can I interrupt you for just a second; it's important."

"No, sorry."
"What? Just need a second of your time."

"No. Come back when my door is open."
You don't want to interrupt management consultant Peter Bregman when he has his Do Not Disturb sign out. Even if you are his children. "Out" he told his two young daughters as they invaded his home office recently.

"But, we just . . ."

"'Out.' I said once more, feeling like a jerk,'" he writes. "I wanted to see them. I even worried for a second that they really needed me. What if one of them was hurt? What if there was a fire in the kitchen? But I didn't look up. My wife was home. If there was a fire, she would put it out."

Jeez, he IS a jerk, you might be saying. But Bregman is making an important point when it comes to rules. If rules protecting your work time are to work, you have to stick to them. Even when it's very uncomfortable to do so. Otherwise, people will keep breaking them. He writes in his post, The Cardinal Rule of Rules:
"Setting a rule and then letting people break it doesn't make them like you, it just makes them ignore you."
Bregman points to studies we've chatted about here that show when our work is interrupted, it can take hours to get back on track. That's right, hours. If at all. And the average worker is interrupted numerous times during the day.

If you are suffering Workus Interruptus, however, the first step if NOT to close your door. Rather, it's to figure out why you are being interrupted in the first place. Are you not making yourself available as much as necessary? Are your reports picking up the balls you are constantly dropping? Once these issues are taken care of, don't be bashful about carving out time to focus on your priority work. And don't give in.

How good are you at protecting your time? What strategies do you use to tell people, in essence, buzz off!

(Image by Ahd Jal, CC 3.0)

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.