Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Don't Interrupt Me!

Hello Polite Readers!

Before I discuss today's topic, I'd just like to mention that it is my birthday! Hooray! If you're in a generous mood and want to give me a present, I'd love it if you'd share this blog on Facebook or Twitter, or e-mail it to a friend. Help me get the word out!

Now, on with the column! One of my loyal readers asked me for advice on a topic that she and a friend were griping about, and that is people interrupting you when you're in the middle of something important. Of course, important can range from working at your home office, or reading the crucial last few pages of a really good book, or putting the finishing touches on a really intricate art project. Anything where you are really in the zone and that interruption just pulls you right out and you want to just PUNCH the person who did it.

Sometimes I have to do a little mental roleplay to put myself in the shoes of my writer when dealing with a subject I have little experience with, but not this time. You see, my husband and I both work from home and we share an office. We have pretty different ways of doing things. He is a master multitasker and has no trouble working, carrying on conversations in several different IM programs, looking something up on Wikipedia, listening to music and eating lunch all at once. I, on the other hand, need to be really focused if I'm doing anything like reading or writing (although when I say "really focused" I usually mean that I read or write a paragraph and then switch over to see what is going on in my Facebook tab, but I'm really focused, honestly). I cannot stand to be interrupted to look at the pretty beetle he just found a picture of on a blog, even though I love beetles. I can't even tell you how many times I've cried "Leave me alone I'm trying to write a blog!!!" Likewise, forget going to a cafe to read a book... as soon as someone sits down next to me and starts talking, my focus is shot.

So, the most important thing to do is set boundaries.When it comes to your co-workers, spouse, housemates or kids, let them know what the rules are. For instance, when you work from home, make sure everyone knows what your hours are when you have to be on the clock and they can't just call to chat. If you share an office, perhaps having your headphones on can serve as a sign that you're doing something really important or involved. And for the avid reader, just tell everyone that as long as your nose is in a book, you are not to be spoken to. Obviously emergencies arise and can serve as exceptions, and you may have to train those around you as what counts as a real emergency, but this should help a lot. My husband now knows that if I am writing or reading something, he has to wait to ask me questions or show me things on his computer.

For spouses, kids, and housemates, you might also have an open/closed door policy. Growing up, I knew if my parents' bedroom door was closed, I wasn't supposed to bother them unless it was an emergency. For shared rooms, you could have some sort of other visible cue, like "If this teddy bear is sitting on my desk, I'm working. If he's sitting on the couch, we can chat."

When approached and interrupted by people who don't know the rules, or by those who should know better but are misbehaving, you can fall back on some simple stock phrases.

"Sorry, I'm on the clock. I have a break coming up in an hour, we can talk then."

"I'm almost done! Let me finish this chapter first."

"Hey, can you wait a minute? I'm really involved in this."

"I really need to focus. Let me get back to you when I'm done with this."

And above all, stand firm! Don't be afraid to say "I can't talk right now." You do not always have to be at everyone's disposal, you do not have to drop everything because your roommate wants to tell you about the funny thing that happened while she was at the store (it always turns out to not be that funny anyway). And remember that unless you politely spell out when you need to be left alone, the people who are interrupting you are not going to know they're doing anything wrong, and they'll think you're getting annoyed for no reason. Just spell out when you need to be allowed to concentrate, and they should understand.

Got a tricky situation of your own to deal with? Send me an e-mail at and you could be in a future column!

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