18 Oct Be More Interruptible and Become a Better Leader

Do you have interruptions in your life? Of course you do, everyone does. If you’re anything like me, you get interrupted every couple of minutes with calls, voicemails, emails, texts, social media posts, employees, visitors, snail mail, and meetings.

Just about everything I read or hear about interruptions is negative. According to the International Journal of Stress Management, employees who experienced frequent interruptions reported 9% higher rates of exhaustion and a 4% increase in physical ailments such as migraines or backaches. A Journal of Experimental Psychology study found that people make twice as many errors after a brief interruption of about 2.8 seconds. According to University of California Irvine research, it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to a task after an interruption.

Different Perspective

Take a deep breath in . . . and then let it out. Write down your common interruptions. While looking at your list, reflect upon the following question: Are they all really “interruptions?”

As I created my list, I noticed that many of them are not truly interruptions. Instead, they are people. Let me share a couple examples. When Ellie and Mia, my daughters, were between the ages of one and five, I regretfully felt frustrated and annoyed at times. I almost felt as if my family was an interruption to my day when Rachel, my wife, brought the girls to work to visit me or called me to simply say “hello.”

Over time I’ve come to realize that interruptions are not always negative or a drain on my time. I’ve learned that being busy doesn’t make me extra important or give me permission to treat my family, friends, and coworkers as interruptions to my day. The last time I checked, I’m not a trauma surgeon.

Are The Best Leaders Interruptible?

Think about some leaders who have made positive differences in your life. Were you able to interrupt them when you needed them the most? I’m guessing you answered with a resounding, “Yes!”

One interruptible leader who comes to mind for me is the assistant basketball coach from my college days, Wayne Rasmussen. Over a warm cup of coffee, I recently asked him how he stayed motivated to coach for so many years. He replied, “My ongoing goal was that no player would come up to me after he graduated and say that I didn’t help to make him a better person.”  I can totally recall immediately thinking, “Wow, now I finally get why coach was such a great leader.”

To accomplish his goal, Coach Rasmussen needed more than just basketball knowledge. I vividly remember him allowing me to interrupt him outside of games and practice to teach me about leadership and to talk about life. I interrupted him to get feedback as to why I wasn’t getting more playing time. I interrupted him when I had an idea. I interrupted him to request a phone call on my behalf for a job recommendation.  

Because Coach Rasmussen always put his players first, we willingly followed him. We never felt like we were  “a bother.” The best leaders readily stop what they are doing when people need them the most.

How To Be Interruptible

You might be thinking, “Ok, I agree that the best leaders are interruptible, but there is no way that I can regularly break the continuity of my work. I’m way too busy.” Allow me to share my two favorite ways to manage and optimize your interruptibility.

#1. Disappear. If you have a big project or ton of work to do, be transparent with your team members so that they are in the know. Tell them that you will be working with your door closed or that you will be leaving to minimize distractions. Reassure them that they can interrupt you if your attention is absolutely necessary. For example, I’m currently creating 10 training and development video courses. To get this done, I may need focus time for 30 minutes, 2 hours, or a full day. After a focus session, I’m less overwhelmed and more patient with interruptions. I offer this strategy to my team because it works! Try it.

#2. “Swing by.” Recently, my managers had the opportunity to give me feedback via a 360 degree review. Caught off guard, one of the things that they really appreciate and want me to keep doing is my daily “swing by.” What in the world does this mean? Every day, I simply drop by their offices once or twice per day and simply ask if I can help with anything or if they have anything to discuss. By being consistent for a couple of years, the “swing by” has evolved greatly. Now, my team members have their list readily prepared on a Post-It or Google Keep Note before I ever “swing by.” If I know I’m going to be out for a portion of the day, I’ll email them early in the morning, and let them know that I’ll be working off-site for most of the day; however, I’ll be available between 2:00pm and 4:00pm if needed to discuss any “swing by” lists. I highly recommend this easy way of keeping the lines of communication open. Consistent, day-to-day “swing bys” have allowed me to give my leaders what they want most…more of my time… while minimizing interruptions.

Do You Want To Be A Better Leader?

Sure, you might be able to measure the negative impact of interruptions through loss of productivity, but you can’t measure the intangibles that result from helping others to maximize their potential. Do you lose time and focus when someone interrupts you? Yes, most likely. Is it difficult to make yourself available and interruptible? Definitely. Is it worth it? Yes.

Click to Tweet: The positive impact of having a leader who is there for you and willing to be interrupted outweighs the negative data about lack of focus.

In the past month, I’m glad that I mindfully removed my earbuds or had an open door. I’m thankful that I allowed an interruption when someone excitedly told me that he finally passed an exam to become a certified personal trainer. I’m thankful that I allowed an interruption when someone had a great idea to give praise and recognition to team members. I’m thankful that I finally looked up after my daughter said, “Daddy!” four times to show me a picture that said, “I love you.” I’m thankful that I allowed an interruption when someone was relieved to tell me that all of the prayers worked because his cancer hadn’t spread. Looking back, these were the most important moments of the month. It all started with being interruptible.

Do you want to become a better leader? Fit people into your day. Today, make the choice to be more interruptible. Live that famous quote that reminds us all that helping one person might not change the world, but it could change the world for one person.

ACTION: Take a moment and interrupt yourself from your own agenda. Think about some opportunities to listen to or help others that you might routinely miss. What are some ways that you can you be more available?

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