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When coaching clients bring up time management and we drill down into where time gets lost or wasted, inevitably, we come to interruptions. The modern worker is continuously interrupted every few minutes.

There are lots of productivity tools to help you manage your e-mail and your time. But I never simply jump into prescribing productivity tools.

Instead, where I get curious first is whether the interruptions are interfering with the work, or whether they are part of the work.

In a hospital emergency room, the answer is obvious. Doctors and nurses serve in the moment — their work is meant to be interrupted by patients in crisis. In a retail store, a sales associate’s secondary job may be to keep the sweaters folded neatly. But his or her primary job is to sell, to be available for customer questions, to be open to interruption.  Pastors, parents and teachers do some of their best work at the moment of interruption.

On the other hand, interruptions are detrimental to the productivity of construction contractors, software development engineers, tax accountants, studying students, and writers. For task-oriented work and learning new concepts, I’ve adopted this Time magazine headline as a mantra: Focus is the new IQ.

For many of us in the critical thinking economy whose positions straddle management and deliverables, it’s not always clear whether the interruptions are wasting time or simply part of the jobIt takes about 23 minutes to refocus after being interrupted, so it makes sense to spend some time thinking this through.

If interruptions are getting frustrating for you, ask yourself which interruptions are part of your work and which are interfering with the work. The answer to that will help you decide what to do next.

If you find yourself staying at work too late every day without exception to finish up what could not be done during the day, some priority setting may be in order. (Check out the link below about makers and managers to dive more deeply.)

And finally, for newer entrants to the work force, part of managing up to supervisors means reminding them what’s on your plate and letting them assist you in prioritization. It’s your responsibility to manage your own time, but you don’t have to assume priorities. Not knowing is perfectly valid and wise managers can help. Over the course of my career, I’ve seen employees focus really hard on some weekly or monthly report simply because that is their task that they must complete, and they put to the side one-off projects that are actually more important to the overall mission. If interruptions are coming from above, you can always ask, “Should Y take priority over X?” …The answer might surprise you. And bonus points if Y is a pointless meeting that you now get to skip!

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