Focus On This Podcast

59. How to Handle Interruptions when Working From Home



You want to do your best work and support the people you love. But interruptions to your workday are taking a toll on your focus and ability to do your important work. You hate feeling pulled in multiple directionslike you have to choose between your work and your family.

You can accomplish your most important work without sacrificing your most important relationships. As parents, spouses, and full-time employees, we’ve been there. And we’ve developed proactive strategies that help us invest in the people and work that we love.

When you implement them, you’ll be able to minimize interruptions and increase your productivity without sacrificing the relationships that mean the most.

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Episode Transcript

Verbs: Happy Monday. This is Verbs, and you are listening to another episode of Focus on This, the most productive podcast on the Internet, so you can banish distractions, get the right stuff done, and finally start loving Mondays, with your hosts Courtney Baker and Blake Stratton.

Blake: Happy Monday, Courtney.

Courtney: Hi. Yeah, it is certainly that, a happy Monday.

Blake: You can tell someone is super happy when they say, “Yes, certainly. I am thrilled.”

Verbs: Indeed it is.

Blake: “I am ecstatic. Certainly.”

Courtney: I’ve been reading too much Jane Austen, I guess. Yeah, it is a happy Monday. It’s good to be with you and Verbs today. I’m really interested to talk about this topic with you two. I think there might be some war stories that come out with what we’re talking about today.

Blake: We’re talking about working from home, and you’re in a closet right now, obviously hiding from your family. Can’t wait for them to hear this episode.

Courtney: Yeah. This is my little nook in the world. Actually, this is not normally where I work, but our producer forces me to come into the closet to record, because for everybody out there listening who doesn’t know much about recording, apparently, soft surfaces are really good. So, there’s your takeaway from this podcast episode. Are we done, good?

Blake: You have some sweaters, some cotton tees in there, and the acoustics are remarkable. Certainly remarkable.

Courtney: Apparently.

Blake: Verbs, you’re working from home too. Right?

Verbs: I am working from home, Blake. I’m actually excited about this episode as well. Obviously, these lockdowns have presented some challenges for those of us with children, and maybe even multiple children, so to really dial in our work environment and figure out what’s the best way to let your kids know you’re not available, that you actually have work to do. So, I’m taking notes as we go through this episode, and I’ll probably share a little bit about some of what I’ve done that has worked and maybe some things that have not worked. So, I’m excited.

Blake: Step one: aggressive yelling.

Courtney: We should also say, working from home is a big distraction whether or not anybody else is in the home. For example, yesterday, my husband was not working in the house, my daughter was not here, and the pest control bug guy came in the middle of a meeting. I’m like, “How am I supposed to…? Am I supposed to carry my computer down there? Do I turn off Zoom? What is the protocol here to be able to do this?”

It’s kind of all of these crazy things that for me, personally, because I’ve worked in an office my whole career, I just was not prepared for. So, I feel like regardless of your life situation, there are all of these boundaries that are constantly being crossed, that you’re like, “This doesn’t seem like it should be happening.”

Verbs: Today, I’m waiting on some guys to come pick up some appliances, and hopefully they don’t come during the recording of this episode, because that would just complicate matters all the more.

Courtney: I hope that happens, actually. I hope the doorbell rings and Verbs is like, “Sorry, guys.”

Verbs: Because you know they don’t give you a specific time. It’s like, “We’ll be there between the hours of 10:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m.” I’m like, “That’s not helping me at all, guys.”

Courtney: Exactly.

Blake: I remember when I first started working at home when our offices closed, and I was taking a lot of sales calls. You know, it’s one thing to have a meeting with your team over Zoom and be like, “Oh, my kid is running around,” or whatever, but when it’s this prospect and you’re like, “So, sir, about you paying me money,” and my daughter is just wailing in the background… I’m like, “I am a good father. I promise.” So, that was a challenge. I’m glad to have navigated that a little easier, but maybe you’re listening in the thick of it right now.

Verbs: So, let me ask you guys this question: Do you think it’s actually possible to be productive in this new work-from-home world we live in now?

Blake: It’s certainly hard. I think that, like any challenge, it’s hard because it’s new for a lot of us. It’s hard because there are a lot of factors we can’t control. The point of what we teach on this podcast is not to suggest you can control absolutely everything, but I think the point is that you can have a plan and you can improve that plan.

It’s hard when every meeting you have it feels like you’re getting interrupted all the time or you don’t have a space to do the deep work you used to be able to do, and that can feel defeating. I know, for me, it felt aggravating, and there’s almost this low level of stress I carry with me. Maybe it’s harder to unplug from work because I’m never fully plugged in. But like anything, it’s totally a limiting belief to suggest “Oh, well, I’m just not going to be able to be effective because I have to work at home.”

Verbs: That’s good, Blake. It may even be a case of what we talked about last week as far as iterating and experiments, kind of setting something into play at least to try to figure out “All right. Here’s my situation. Distractions are going to come. What’s going to be my response?” and then assessing to see if your reaction to those responses is working or if you need to go back and iterate to find something that’s going to work for you in your environment.

Courtney: So, today, we have some really practical solutions for you, no matter your situation, if you are working from home, that you can instill and use to hopefully help you get that deep work, that pursuit of goals, those things you need bigger focus time for. So, let’s just jump right in.

Verbs: Let’s do it.

Blake: Absolutely. So, we have three strategies. First strategy: notice patterns in your interruptions. When you’re working from home, most definitely there are going to be some interruptions in some way, shape, or form. Even if you don’t have a family, even if you’re living alone, there are still interruptions. Maybe the pest guy is coming over or maybe it’s simply just the sights and sounds, interruptions over the Internet, or just the potential distractions of those things. Right?

Courtney: Yeah, like the lawn guys. If you live in a neighborhood, I’m sorry. I’m like, “Can y’all sync this up somehow?” It’s like a constant low-level mowing at all times. Or is that just me? I don’t know.

Verbs: The leaf blower is definitely a weapon of mass distraction.

Courtney: Ugh! The leaf blower. And that’s everybody who’s working from home.

Blake: I discovered this in a Weekly Preview once, where I went through a whole week and didn’t ever, on any day, get my Big 3 done. I was thinking, “What is happening?” When I looked back, I asked, “Okay. What was happening in my time?” and I couldn’t remember. I was like, “I know stuff happened.” So, what I did was I used the Notes page of my planner. It’s adjacent to the agenda. On my agenda I have my plan, but on the Notes page what I did, just for one week, was I wrote down what actually happened, and I could compare my plan versus reality.

I noticed this pattern where, every day, there were about two hours worth of unexpected happenings. Maybe those were interruptions or distractions or something like that. Sometimes they’re just fires that happen at work, like, “Oh, this emergency thing we have to take care of,” that sort of stuff. That was really, really empowering, because I was able to look at that and go, “Oh, if I see a pattern here…you know, about two hours every day of interruptions…now I understand…”

It’s just like a financial budget. It’s like, “Oh, what happened? I planned, and every dollar had this job, and then guess what: unexpected things happened. My car broke down, it was someone’s birthday,” or whatever else, you know, something you need extra money for. I don’t do this, but a wise financial person would put some buffer in their budget. Right? You want to do the same thing, I guess, with your time. At least, that’s what I did. I said, “Okay. I have to understand I need at least two hours of buffer, because that’s actually reality.”

Courtney: That’s a really good hack for seeing what the pattern is. Some other questions you could ask yourself are, “Okay. Who interrupted me? Is it the lawn guys over and over and over? When did it happen? Why did it happen? And how did I respond? With the lawn guys, was it just rage? Maybe I need to get some noise-cancelling headphones.” Those questions will help you establish what the interruptions are. Sometimes we just let these interruptions happen and we don’t acknowledge them. If we don’t acknowledge them, there’s really nothing we can do about it. So, that’s kind of the first step, and then review that list and reflect on it.

Blake: So, Verbs, you know those kids you love with all your heart?

Verbs: Yes. All my heart, mind, soul, and strength.

Blake: Have you ever…? I don’t know. Have they interrupted you? Has that ever happened on a consistent basis? How have you reviewed those interruptions?

Verbs: Yes. Guys, I have a fantastic interruption that just occurred yesterday. I have three children, ages 10, 8, and 7. Sometimes, just throughout the day, especially in the work-from-home situation, they’re just used to Dad being here working from home. Normally, I know by the tone of their voice if they call me from downstairs, say, my wife is not here… If they call me from downstairs, I can tell by the tone of their voice whether something is truly wrong that I need to attend to or, if it’s something that could wait, I’ll just let them know, “Hey, be there in a moment; give me 10 minutes,” or whatever.

Yesterday, I hear my daughter yell from the stairs, talking about my son just came out of the bathroom and the toilet was flooding. Now, the term flooding could be… For them, it’s kind of a subjective term. That could just mean the water in the toilet is rising and they see that as flooding. But sure enough, yesterday that wasn’t the case. I get halfway down the stairs, and I hear this waterfall-like noise, and I thought to myself, “Okay. This is not good.”

Sure enough, I got to the bathroom. Water was all over the floor, still flowing from the commode. That was in the middle of me trying to end and wrap up my workday, and by that time, I looked at the water on the floor and said, “This is not happening. There’s no way I’m going back to work after trying to clean this up,” because my mind was like, “I’ve got to get this water up,” all that kind of stuff.

That doesn’t happen as frequently, but there are little interruptions, things like that that could happen. Even if it’s not an emergency situation, it’s just something that, especially as a parent, your mind pivots to, “Let me figure this out and settle it as quickly as I can, if I can, so I can get back to work.” But it’s not just the distraction itself; it’s the time it takes to get back on track with the work you were trying to do previous to that interruption or that distraction.

Courtney: I’m curious, Verbs. Are you able to notice patterns in that? Do you notice, like, “Hey, after lunchtime, my kids are more likely to be antsy and more noisy”? Have you been able to establish a pattern in the interruptions?

Verbs: I wish I was able to establish a pattern. I think the randomness of it is what makes it an interruption that’s kind of hard to tackle. We homeschool as well, so mostly, during the day, they are supposed to be focused on doing their work as well. If it’s toward the end of the day when they’ve wrapped up what they were doing for the day, then they’re freed up and know where I’m at, so they’ll come telling me about something in their day, something they’ve done.

For me, the tension, which I think we’re going to talk about in this next step, is be at least aware enough and present enough in what they’re saying so I’m not just pushing them off repeatedly to where they feel like, “Oh, Dad just gave me the Heisman. He’s stiff-arming me. I’m trying to ask him a question or show him a drawing or something.” So, for me, it has been, “How do I respond to the interruption, especially to my children in that moment, so I’m not just giving them that stiff arm?”

Blake: So, first strategy: notice patterns in the interruptions. There are going to be some outliers, like your house is flooding, but probably more often there’s going to be a pattern in the time that an interruption takes, the time of day it takes, who’s asking for something from you. So, take time and reflect on that and move to the second strategy: problem-solve or create a plan to be present.

What I mean here is you can provide a solution to that interruption or you actually may need to be the solution yourself. You may need to have a plan for being present. You know, if you have a family, that sort of thing, there needs to be a plan in place for when you’re accessible, and we’ll talk more about that later. Let’s first talk about this idea of those interruptions that maybe need a solution, but maybe it doesn’t need to be you.

This is maybe exposing a limiting belief, like, “Oh, my family always needs me. I can’t actually ever focus.” Courtney, I’m curious, in your situation, because you’ve been working with your family at home, and your daughter is getting older. I’m sure she has more questions or needs or things like that. What are some ideas or some categories of things where you feel like, “No, that doesn’t require me, per se, but it does require something, and maybe I can do something about that in advance”?

Courtney: Well, I will say, early on in this season I established a practice where I went to “work” in the morning. I would literally be like, “Okay. Mommy is going to work. I can’t wait to see you at the end of…” You know, at whatever time. Even though I was still in the house, I literally went to work when I went to my office. That really helped, but there are things like if my family is going to go pick up food for the day, what I would want for lunch. You know, coming up and asking me, “Hey, what would you want for lunch?” That’s really sweet and so kind that they care to ask me, but it’s not worth the distraction.

So, being able to notice and say, “Hey, before I go up to work for the day, if y’all go out, this is what I would like.” Sometimes it’s just simple things, like somebody needs a credit card or a password, and you can problem-solve those in advance. My family uses 1Password for all of our passwords. Keeping keys in a place where if somebody needs a different car during the middle of the day, they’re not having to track you down, and then you’re having to track down, “Where is my backpack?” Those are things that if you will do that first step, then the solution becomes a lot easier to think through.

Blake: Yeah, for sure. The other side of this coin is what happens if you can’t do that, if it’s truly “We need Mom” or “We need Dad.” You know, someone needs you. You need to be present in some capacity for real.

Courtney: Or the toilet is overflowing. Verbs, you should just teach your children how to get that done. Right? Is that where we’re going?

Blake: The teaching moment.

Verbs: Yeah. Stay away from four-ply toilet paper, y’all.

Blake: So, the other side of this coin is what happens if you have to be the solution. You can’t plan ahead for it. The toilet is overflowing or “We really need Mom,” “We really need Dad,” whatever the case may be. You want to plan to be present. To do that, you need to have a plan. I’ve mentioned in previous episodes using the Ideal Week as a tool for this, creating those times… Maybe they’re not huge blocks of time, but creating those times and those rhythms, those routines, with the people you live with or with your family for when you get “me” time, you know, when Blake is going to be available.

That rhythm, that plan can help quite a bit. Maybe there is something where I am needed, but if there’s a plan for “Hey, well, at 11:00 I have a break” or “Every day I’m going to take my lunch between this time and this time” or “After naptime, I’m going to have 30 minutes with the kids to give my wife a break,” or something like that… Creating those rhythms is a great way to offset what you might lose otherwise by being interrupted randomly for your time.

Courtney: I think the constant interruptions, you know, addressing those as they arise… You can feel like you’re shortchanging your work, and then on the flip side of that, if you disregard all of those moments, there’s certainly a cost to that, to your most important relationships. This proactive planning ahead… I love the idea of the chunks of time.

My family does something similar. On Friday at lunchtime we eat lunch all together, so there’s that planned connection time. I think those are really, really helpful and help group those, where it’s like if there is an interruption that’s needed, they know there’s going to be this time that’s coming where we get to be present together.

Blake: That brings us to the third strategy, which I think is so critical: communicate your boundaries clearly to both your family and your colleagues. This is a huge one. Courtney, you mentioned having that lunchtime. How have you navigated…? Because you have a lot of people who report to you in our company as well. So, can you talk through how you have conversations like that with both family and either your direct reports or your coworkers?

Courtney: Well, I already shared about how I do that with my daughter when I go to work. There’s a really clear handoff between “We’ve done our morning routine all together, and now it’s time for me to go to work.” The first thing is trying to make a really clear handoff. I think sometimes, when we try to work at all moments…

You know, we’re trying to squeeze in every ounce of work, and we have kids running behind us. We’re just trying to squeeze it in. Sometimes that actually works against us. Establishing a clear communication of “Hey, Mom (or Dad) has changed gears from our morning time together to work time” has worked really great for me. Verbs, do you do something like that with your kids?

Verbs: We don’t currently, but I like what you’re saying here, so I might jot that down.

Blake: I want to hear as well, Courtney, how does that look from the colleague side? Maybe to paint a picture… To help with my own family, I’ll take a chunk out of my typical workday. Like, pre-COVID, before I was working at home and things were kind of shifting around and childcare was harder to come by… I would take a chunk out of my afternoon, and I would then do something I normally don’t do, which is catch up or do a little admin kind of work in the evening after my daughter went down for the night.

That’s not normally what I’d want to do, but working from home, the way I did that was I had to communicate with my team and my boss, “Hey, just so you know, is it possible, if I can shift this around, instead of doing this type of work during this time, if I can be available to my family and then catch up in the evening? By the way, if I send you a message in the evening, it doesn’t mean you have to respond. I’m just trying to catch up on those things I may have missed during that time.” Have you done anything like that, Courtney?

Courtney: Yeah. I think everybody this year… I feel like my Ideal Week has shifted like six times since March. It has been this kind of evolving thing. It’s like kids aren’t going to school, and then they are going to school, and then they’re going back home. It’s really difficult for everybody, and it’s this kind of traumatic thing that we’re all in the same boat together.

What I do is I’m just really up front about “Hey, my daughter has to be picked up from school early this week, so I’m going to be shifting my work schedule earlier. I’m going to be on at 8:00 a.m., but I will be off earlier in the day.” The same thing with you, there have been times… And we work really hard at Michael Hyatt & Company not to be sending messages at night, but communicating, if there is a time I’m sending messages at night, that I do not expect responses.

In my role especially, it’s very important. We talked about this in the email episode, actually, how you can unintentionally set that expectation that you expect a response, especially the higher up in leadership you are. So, just being clear with, “Hey, I’m doing this because X, Y, Z. I don’t expect a response, and I’ll hear from you tomorrow,” especially if there’s going to be a series of days where that happens.

We use Slack, and our team does a really great job, especially in this season, of being transparent with what they’re doing. “Hey, I have to go run and get a kid from school” or “I have to go address this family issue. I’m going to be gone for the next 30 minutes. If you need me, if there’s an emergency, call.” That has worked really well for us.

Blake: I think there are a couple of principles both for family and work that I hear through what you’re saying and I’ve found a lot of benefit from, which is: remember to acknowledge what the other person or party or boss is going through themselves and to validate their own experience. It’s not just you in the equation, but to validate, “Hey, I know it’s hard doing X, Y, and Z” or “Hey, I know we have this big goal to do this this quarter with our company,” and communicate in a way that acknowledges what they’re going through and highlights the benefits of your potential schedule or boundaries for them.

For example, when I had to have a conversation with my own boss about timing of me doing certain things, I knew “I have to frame this around our team’s goals,” because the business doesn’t exist for my own comfort. I know the heart of my boss is that I’m excited, that I’m getting the double win, you know, winning at work and succeeding at life. I know that’s our heart, but even in our company (and this goes for you listening if you work for a company), the goal of the business is to generate profit.

So consider, “Okay. How is me having greater focus, creating boundaries, scheduling those, going to help us generate that profit?” Or with your family, “How is this going to help us have more quality time?” Communicating with those principles in mind is really helpful if you’ve had trouble setting those boundaries.

Verbs: So, your day doesn’t have to be a series of interruptions. You can bring focus to your workday by noticing patterns in interruptions, problem-solving or planning to be present, and communicating your boundaries. With that being said, Blake and Courtney, do you have any final thoughts for our Focus on This team?

Courtney: Well, I feel like this is my final thought a lot of times, but I think just giving yourself grace, especially in this season, that there are going to be distractions. Things are not always going to go as planned, but hopefully some of these tools of how to acknowledge them, maybe how to circumvent some of those distractions, will be helpful. At the end of the day, I feel like this year of all years, grace is needed for ourselves and for each other.

Blake: Yeah, absolutely. That’s a great point. If you’re on the receiving end of some of this stuff, too, if someone is trying to communicate a boundary with you and it’s an experiment that doesn’t work, remember to have that grace, because we’re all in it together. We’re all going through it together. The flip side of that is if it feels really chaotic, remember that a key to accessing control is taking ownership. So, if it feels like, “Hey, this is out of my hands,” where you can take responsibility or ownership is a place where you can take some power back as well.

With that, thank you once again for spending time with us, whether you’re in the workday or you’re getting ready for your workday or your workday is over. We know you have a challenging and hopefully exciting, filled-with-opportunity year going on, so thank you for spending a little bit of time with us.

Verbs: Ladies and gentlemen, this is the most productive podcast on the Internet, so please share it with your friends, and remember to use #focusonthispodcast.

Courtney: We’ll be here next week with another great episode. Until then…

Verbs, Blake, & Courtney: Stay focused!