There are any number of ways that you are interrupted each day. If you work from home there might be kids, pets, and partners... all vying for attention. At the office, there might be co-workers, managers, and direct reports… all vying for attention. That’s not even considering email, instant messages, meetings, texts, and phone calls.
How many times a day do you get interrupted and pulled out of whatever you are trying to focus on?
Probably too many times!
Every time you are interrupted or get pulled out of the zone (or never make it into the zone in the first place) there is an opportunity cost.
- What could you have done if given some space to think deeper?
- How much more energy would you have over the course of the day?
- How much more could you have accomplished?
The feeling that you have to be available to your family, friends, colleagues, staff, and customers at all times.
You can lift the curse of immediacy by being intentional about interruptions and when you choose to be available to others.
Availability boundaries benefit everyone
You do not have to be available at all times. In fact, it is to everyone’s benefit for you to NOT be available sometimes. Intriguing, right? There are a few reasons. When you are not immediately available:
- It encourages others to be more thoughtful about the urgency of their requests.
- It encourages others to problem solve and figure out challenges on their own.
- It gives you the opportunity to set expectations for when you will respond.
- It reduces the mental energy toll of breaking focus and decision fatigue.
When you set boundaries around your time and encourage others to do the same, you give yourself AND the people you work with the opportunity to get in the zone more often. Boundary-setting is about identifying your needs and communicating them to others.
It’s about setting expectations.
That is not to say that you should bar your door, hang a KEEP OUT sign, and stop responding to email and meeting requests (though, I’m not NOT saying that…).😅
Jokes aside, I am not discouraging organic conversation or ‘water cooler chat’ which is valuable and creates great opportunities for creativity. You should absolutely make an effort to regularly connect with your team. But connection doesn’t have to be at the expense of focus. Rather, I encourage you to think about how much power you have over your available time and make both focus and connection a priority.
7 ways to set availability boundaries and reduce interruptions
When you think about what you are trying to accomplish in your role, with the limited time you have each day, it makes sense to try to protect and set goals around your time. The following are 7 tactics and approaches to help you set boundaries around your availability and reduce interruptions:
- Evaluate your actual availability requirements
- Book interruption-free times in your calendar
- Book available for interruption times in your calendar
- Ask your team to batch their questions
- Ask your team to come to you with solutions, not problems
- Triage interruptions with an escalation plan
- Deprogram yourself from being ON all the time
1. Evaluate your actual availability requirements
Again, most of you do not need to be available to your staff, colleagues, or customers at all times. Similar to emails and meetings, you might feel like you absolutely have to respond immediately or book yourself at the first possible opening… but if you really think about it, it’s likely not true.
For many of you:
- Absolutely nothing bad will happen if you answer your email less frequently.
- No one will care if you set a meeting for next week instead of tomorrow.
- Your colleague will be able to do something else if you don’t answer their Slack question within 3 minutes.
- You will not lose your customer if you don’t reply to them in 15 seconds.
Realizing this can be both humbling and freeing.
I keep repeating the idea that you need to evaluate your actual availability requirements because I think it’s one of the hardest pieces of the curse of immediacy. The feeling of needing to respond with speed is so ingrained that it can be hard to let go.
I encourage you to be as honest with yourself as possible. You of course need to be available sometimes, but how often, is the question you need to have a clear answer for. It’s something you can experiment with, trying even one of the tactics I mention here and seeing what happens.
2. Book interruption-free (deep work) times in your calendar
It might only be a few hours a week, but blocking out deep-work time where you are not responding to email, text message, chat messages, or the phone gives you space to focus on projects or work that benefits from your undivided attention.
- Choose your best mental energy times
- Block them in your calendar so you don’t get booked for meetings
- Communicate these times with your team or colleagues
- Tell them why you are booking this time
- Ask them not to interrupt you unless it’s an emergency
- Tell them when you will be available
Booking and communicating this interruption-free time sets a boundary and an expectation for when you are not available.
3. Book open, available-for-connecting times in your calendar
This is kind of like office hours, without calling it office hours. This time is great for you to plan on working on lower value, low concentration work (like email!). During this time you can answer Slack messages, or have a quick discussion about a blocker on a project, or read through a draft document for a colleague. This is when team members can pop by your office for a check-in or even a chat.
Ideally, this is not all the other time in your calendar outside of your deep work. These are specific blocks of time that you can put aside and, again, communicate with your team or colleagues as the best times for them to connect with you on certain things.
Booking and communicating this open time sets a boundary and an expectation for when you are most available.
Beyond internal availability with your team and colleagues, one of the ways I manage my availability for external meetings is to set up different calendars through Calendly. It syncs with my Google calendar and gives complete control over which days and time-slots I want to be considered available and which ones I do not. All I do you have to do is set up your preference, send the link to the person requesting a meeting, and they can book within the availability parameters you set.
4. Ask your team to batch their questions
Again this comes back to the curse of immediacy and the assumption that you should be available to answer questions immediately. Instead of having a stream of questions throughout the day interrupting you over and over, ask your team, co-workers, and colleagues to batch their questions. Ask them to make a list of questions as they come up and bring it during your open hours or to the next meeting. Of course, you do the same for them.
Get everyone to ask themselves:
- How urgent is my question?
- Am I unable to do any more work without an answer or can I do something else in the meantime?
- Can this wait until [your] open calendar times or even the next team meeting?
Depending on your role and your relationship with your colleagues, this might be easier for some of you than others. The goal is to get everyone (including you) in the habit of taking the extra minute to stop and decide if their question is worth interrupting someone for, given the opportunity cost, or if it can wait. Sometimes it can’t...but sometimes it can!
5. Ask your team to come to you with solutions, not problems
We have all felt the instinct to ask “the boss”, or a more experienced colleague, what to do the minute we run into a roadblock. While this instinct is understandable, it is a valuable skill to be able to take the extra step of thinking through the potential options or answers BEFORE asking. Either you discover your answer on your own, or you are able to present avenues you have already explored, instead of just a problem.
This is something we all benefit from and can ask from our colleagues, in particular employees or direct reports. Ask them to come to you with written solutions instead of problems (and do the same for them). I know, at first blush, you might be rolling your eyes and imagining Michael from The Office, but hear me out.
When someone comes to you with a problem, the onus is on you to figure out the potential solutions. It ends up being your mental energy and time that gets spent. When you ask them to think of possible solutions and bring those instead, you are usually able to simply say yes or no. The onus is on them to take that extra critical thinking or research step.
If a written list of solutions isn’t possible, then the next best thing is a written list of things that they tried already but didn’t work. This forces self-documentation and eliminates the duplication of effort… and actually increases their chances of success before they even come to you. This is some serious House M. D. style of management!
Asking others to come to you with solutions reduces your mental load while giving them some agency to take ownership over the problem.
And vice versa! In terms of setting boundaries around your availability, you are still available to help, but they can help you help them by bringing solutions or options, not just a problem.
6. Triage interruptions with an escalation plan
Another way to reduce interruptions and set availability boundaries is to triage interruptions through an escalation plan. All this means is that you choose which communication mediums are meant for what level of urgency.
For example, from most urgent to least urgent:
- ↓ Phone call - There is an emergency and or something that requires immediate discussion.
- ↓ Text message - You expect a response within 10 minutes.
- ↓ Chat message - You expect an answer within a few hours.
- ↓ Email - You expect a response within 1 business day.
- ↓ Meeting - You can wait a few days for a full discussion during open hours or the next team meeting.
What order you put the communication mediums in doesn’t matter. It will be different based on how you and your teamwork together.
These are meant to set expectations as loose guidelines, but of course, sometimes you will need to have an emergency meeting or to share a code snippet on chat and have a discussion because something important is blocked. But if everyone understands that they shouldn’t expect an immediate response when they send you an email or knows that they need to pick up the phone if it rings, it helps dispel that curse of immediacy so everyone can get in the zone and focus.
It also helps avoids the well-memed situation where a meeting...could have been a phone call, could have been an email, could have been an instant message, which could have been a text.
7. Deprogram yourself from being ON all the time
You might have created expectations that you are (or should be) available at all times...even for yourself. While sometimes it is necessary to work late or odd hours because of a project launch or time zone differences, being available at all times as a default takes energy that is better spent on the other priorities in your life.
When you get right down to it, being ON all the time is exhausting. There is incredible value in being able to disconnect, put down your phone, close your chat apps, shut your email and be present. But this takes practice.
I bet some of you started sweating a little after reading, “put down your phone”. 😅
- Begin by choosing a chunk of “disconnect time” you can stick to. Maybe it’s only half an hour, but choose a time when you know you can be offline for a while and the world won’t burn down in your absence. This will be longer and more often than you think. 😜
- Turn off or hide your phone. Leave it in another room. Close all your chat apps and email. Put your phone on Do Not Disturb. Do what you can to reduce the temptation to check it.
- Optionally, set yourself ‘away’ on your various apps to communicate you are not available.
- Do...something that would benefit from being interruption-free. There are SO many things. It might be some yoga, it might be buckling down on that report you have been avoiding.
- Reflect on how it feels. The first few times it might feel a bit naked, like when you forget your phone at home for the day. But eventually, maybe it feels freeing? Maybe it’s kind of nice?
- Try for a longer chunk of disconnected time or making it part of a daily ritual.
You can try this at home first if it makes it feel a bit easier, but you can also try it in the office. This process of deprogramming from being on all the time is essentially setting boundaries with your technology. 📵
These availability boundary setting tactics, as well as the email and meeting boundary tactics, are all variations of the idea that you have more agency over your time and attention than you think. Some will be easier or more reasonable for you than others. Some might not be possible. What I encourage you to do is think about what IS possible, and try it.
The key to boundary setting is to both set and keep to those boundaries. It might feel awkward or uncomfortable to set some of these boundaries at first (it is hard to ask for what we need), but the benefit to everyone is immense. You and the people you work with develop better communication habits (lifting that curse of immediacy!) so everyone is able to get to that deep work, while still leaving opportunities to connect.
What other boundary-setting tactics do you use?
Need some more help setting time boundaries?