How to Be Productive Even When You’re Interrupted Constantly

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The boss turns to the secretary and says “Clear my schedule.” With just those three words, the boss turns and retreats to the seclusion of a closed-door office.

I always chuckle when I see this scene repeated in a movie or TV show, because it’s something that’s nearly impossible in our line of work.

It’s tough to shut the door and work without interruption, because so much hinges on our availability.

Even so, we have to be very purposeful about ensuring that we’re able to work on our priorities, and not just deal with other people’s crises all day. 

The 15-Minute Rule

A helpful strategy is to plan your work in 15-minute blocks, four per hour, all day every day.

If you schedule your work in 15-minute blocks…

  • You’ll be able to deal with most interruptions before the next block begins
  • You can get significant work done on most kinds of projects in 15 focused minutes
  • You can easily reshuffle your blocks as needed
  • Anyone who needs to interrupt you can wait till you’re done with your current block, and they’ll never have to wait more than 15 minutes
  • Your attention span can handle 15 minutes, even during the summer

The Interruption Ratio

Try this for a few days, establish a baseline, and determine what’s realistic.

If you know you’ll get interrupted 25% of the time, you’ll soon learn that you need an hour to catch up after every 4 hours of work (One 15-minute block per hour gets interrupted x 4 hours = one hour of catch-up).

If your interruption ratio is 25%, you’ll know you can only realistically schedule 3/4 of your available hours for focused work (not including meetings and other inflexible responsibilities).

Big Blocks

Of course, you’ll need sustained blocks of uninterrupted time to work on more involved projects, and that’s why many administrators find that the early morning is the best time to get this work done.

Before everyone else arrives (or after they leave, if that’s more your cup of tea), you can work without interruption on whatever most needs your attention.

I don’t recommend slicing up this time into 15-minute blocks; work for as long as you need to and can sustain it. When else are you going to have the luxury of working without interruption?

But when others are around, and interruptions are inevitable, 15-minute blocks can make a big difference.

What About Classroom Observations?

How does this strategy fit with the need to get into classrooms? Pretty well, actually. Unless you are doing a formal observation that’s required to be more than 15 minutes, you can learn a lot and provide good feedback in 15 minutes.

You can even fit in two classrooms in 15 minutes, or one classroom plus an interruption. 7 minutes is plenty of time to see what’s going on and provide meaningful feedback if you have the right systems in place.

Get into three or four classrooms and provide feedback, every day, and you’ll be in the top 1% of school leaders anywhere.

Start Today

Don’t wait until the new school year begins. Try this strategy today, even if school is out and you’re unlikely to be interrupted.

Because you know what? I bet that even with four uninterrupted hours, you’ll get bored or distracted without breaking things up a little bit. Sure, take advantage of the big blocks of time when you have them, but also be smart about your own attention span and desire for variety.

Here’s what to do:

  1. Look at your calendar and identify your time that isn’t already spoken for with meetings and other obligations. Let’s say you have four hours today.
  2. Estimate your interruption ratio. Let’s say this is 25% (maybe it’s as high as 50% or 75% if you’re still wrapping up the school year). That means you can get three hours of work done in four hours.
  3. Look at your to-do list and pick out your biggest, most time-consuming project you want to work on today. Estimate how many 15-minute blocks you’ll need to get it done. Let’s say you’ll need five blocks for a big project.
  4. Schedule these blocks on your calendar, non-consecutively but as early in the day as possible. Alternate your blocks so you can do other work that’s sensitive to the time of day.
  5. Look at your to-do list and fill in the other 15-minute blocks with whatever else you need to accomplish. If a task is shorter than 15 minutes, group it in a block with other short tasks. If it’s bigger, give it more than one block.
  6. Throughout the day, drag and drop your blocks to keep your calendar accurate. If you get interrupted, drag the block to a free slot later in the day (you did keep free slots, right?).

One more tip: Assuming you’re using an electronic calendar, you might pick different colors for these work blocks and your actual appointments with other people, so it’s clear what can be easily reshuffled and what can’t.

Let me know how it goes!

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About the Author

Justin Baeder helps school administrators increase their productivity through the High-Performance Instructional Leadership Network. Learn More »

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