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Strategies to focus and stop interruptions at work

You're elbows deep in a spreadsheet. Your employee needs help responding to a client email. Your manager needs you to drop everything and step into a risk meeting. Your chat flares with a request for a time tracking report immediately.

Constant interruptions at work can make it hard to focus and complete tasks. Plus, these distractions present no small inconvenience. One study from researchers at the University of California, Irvine, and Humboldt University found stress, frustration, and other negative sentiments arise after people experience as little as 20 minutes of interrupted performance. While the stop-and-go workflow can sometimes prompt professionals to work faster, your tolerance for distractions from a single task is only so high.

As a leader, you need some flexibility to manage expectations and stress. Yet you also require time to sit down and power through your to-do list. Here are some tips to limit interruptions:

Block off time in your schedule
Just because your calendar has an open slot doesn't mean you're twiddling your thumbs at your desk. However, others could see free space as invitations to interrupt whatever task you have in the docket.

Schedule tasks in your calendar to set expectations regarding what you need to do throughout the day. Depending on your preference and company policy, you may want to make these blocks private from view. Just remember to leave time for adjustments. Some interruptions require an immediate response, so don't create a plan too rigid for emergencies.

"Create time for people to drop in and chat."

Set up office hours
Your direct reports, peers, and colleagues in other departments will have questions or want to collaborate. Don't close yourself off from these opportunities to share ideas and advice.

Create open time on your calendar for people to drop in and chat. This way, you remain accessible and can focus on a single task during this block of time. If you use Google Calendar, it offers an "office hours" scheduling feature.

Turn off desktop notifications
It's understandable that you want to stay on top of communications as they arrive. However, don't let this desire distract you. Whether it's chat or email notifications, turn them off while you complete a project.

Communicate with your team
Whether you have daily standup meetings or think a quick email will suffice, tell your employees your goals for the day. If they know you have an interruption-free hour blocked off after lunch, they have clear expectations about when they can reach you for questions. If they miss that communication (or you forget to send one), give a timeline for when you can respond to an inquiry or complete a requested task.