How I nearly eliminated toxic interruptions

Even as a kid, I couldn’t stand interruptions. I’d be watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer and be interrupted by a family member suddenly wanting to chat mid-episode. Or I’d be right in the middle of an intense section of a great Hardy Boys book and bam! Someone just starts talking to me about nothing of great importance, like how it’s time for dinner (who sets that time anyway?)

It’s only gotten worse.

With cell phones and the horrible fact that everyone thinks an immediate answer is necessary at all times, we’ve become dependant upon interruptions to go about our daily lives. In an office you’re interrupted non-stop for meetings, updates, reports, what-have-you. On your computer or tablet, you’re interrupted by notifications from Twitter, Facebook, Emails, and just about every application on your favorite device.

It never ends! Except that it can; you rule your life, whether you know it or not.

There’s a fix for every one of these problems. To accomplish this, I have defined areas where I’m OK with interruptions and areas that I’m not. First up, telephone calls.

Telephone Calls

I cannot stand telephone calls – they interrupt whatever I’m doing no matter what it is at any point in the day (or night). The call may just be a friend or family member looking for a status update while I’m trying to fix a serious issue with a server. No way it makes sense for me to answer that! If I’m in the midst of reading a rather complicated chapter of an important book (non-fiction informational typically) a telephone call could make me need to read the chapter all over again. If I’m programming, a telephone call can make me lose track of what I’m working on and start the whole section anew (wasting precious hours of my time). What to do?!

Let everyone know you don’t want phone calls. Set up your voicemail to inform others that they’re welcome to leave a voicemail, though email is preferred (email is quicker to respond to and gather information than is voicemail). Tell people to email you or text message you, but not to expect an immediate response at all times. If people understand your methods, they’re more likely to obey them.

This also lends a hand to prioritization and emergencies. If someone only calls you when its an emergency, you’re much more likely to answer the call than if they call you all of the time. You could accidentally ignore an emergency if you don’t have something like this set up purely because you’re accustomed to all of your phone calls being of the same importance level. How can you prioritize a phone call if you don’t know what it’s about? You simply can’t unless you’ve arranged the call in advance – likely by email.

People in your face

I hear people constantly joking about families that are emailing or text messaging each other within the same household – often across the hallway or room from each other. And they scoff at it. But it’s effective and efficient! And hey, it can be pretty fun too. This works exactly the same for offices. Why would you walk down the hall (or across the room) and interrupt someone’s workflow? The only time it makes sense is if there is an urgent matter to deal with immediately. In every other case, both people are benefited by emailing instead. Why? The person who gets up to go talk to you clearly has nothing better to do or is avoiding doing work. You get interrupted in the midst of whatever you’re doing, and overall the net productivity of the situation is considerably lower than if the information being passed on were simply emailed.

But I can’t describe the problem by email

Bullshit. Most people are horrible at describing things in general. But when you sit down to itemize the information you’re trying to transmit, it’s amazing how clear it can become! By outlining a description on your computer, you have the ability to actually see what it is that you are saying and realize that you haven’t been saying it very clearly all along. This happens to me all the time, and those that think they don’t need it are almost always wrong. There are exceptions. Some people are excellent at formulating thoughts (even long ones) in their heads, but most of us simply aren’t built that way. For the rest of us, there’s writing.

Next time you’re excited about telling someone something that’s rather long, instead of running up to them and describing that thing, write it down and itemize it. Put it in clear terms without editing as you go along. When you’re done, sleep on it and read over it the next morning. You will see how unclear and completely unoptimized it truly is! This is a quick exercise to see how you can improve communications with others, but I wouldn’t do this every time. After a while you can edit as you go along and come up with roughly the same effectiveness as before while improving your speed greatly. Not only do you improve your ability to communicate that thought but you improve your writing skills in general – this can only be a good thing in the Internet age.

If I don’t get back to person x, they’ll think I don’t care!

While this is certainly possible with some people these days, the people that really matter, whether in business or your person life, will not fault you for this. You would be surprised how understanding people are of simply needing a bit of time to answer a question. If these people are not understanding, are you sure you want to be doing business with them? If it’s a friend, well perhaps it’s time to space yourself just a little bit from this person – for the sake of your sanity.

Choose your weapon: prioritization on all of your devices

My computer tends to be my notification frenzy device. I typically leave a dozen apps running that notify me of things, like Facebook notifier, Twitter, Mail, Sparrow, OmniFocus, Evernote, Skype, Adium and possibly more I’m not thinking of. This means when I need to get some real work done, I need to do one of two things. I can quit all those programs and only use the one I need to be working on or I can switch to a notification free device

My iPad is my weapon of choice for no interruptions; it’s a mostly notification free device. I use it to read, write and research, all of which should be done in an interruption free environment, so I disabled notifications from anything that pops up regularly enough to annoy me. I take my iPad with me any time I need to get anything done (except programming sadly).

My iPhone is somewhere in the middle. I’ve disabled push notifications for almost everything except the most important business interruptions and key messenger programs like Kik and SMS that only really work well on the iPhone with its constant cellular connection. I have business support tickets set up for push, but NOT all emails. This way people who actually need help can get through to me immediately, while the rest can await my next free moment, at which time I will open the Mail app and take a gander.

Signal to noise ratio (SNR)

SNR comes from sound or radio communications where you want to eliminate noise and focus in on the signal. Sound familiar? It should – you’ve just been reading over 1000 words about it. You’re improving the signal to noise ratio of the information all around you by taking some or all of these tips to heart. I’ve been living with these types of adjustments to my life for roughly the past year and a half and it is completely liberating. I find when I need to get things done, they get done considerably faster than before and my stress levels remain comparatively low.

My only regret? Not realizing I needed to do this before I started university.

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