Unmitigated interruptions can derail your progress toward goals, costing you time, money, and energy.  Learning how to manage interruptions effectively will help you maintain focus, get more done, and experience less stress.

How to manage interruptions as a small business owner:  Introduction

When you’re constantly interrupted, your time, energy, and attention are directed away from their intended use, and toward things that may or may not be of great importance.  Small business owners and solopreneurs can quickly fall behind in their business if they give in to repeated interruptions.  But, most interruptions are caused by external factors.  So, how can you control something that isn’t really within your control?

The truth is, you can’t truly control every single interruption.  However, you can create systems to anticipate, respond to, and manage interruptions.  You’ll have better control of your time, energy, and focus, as a result.  Today, I’m sharing a 5-step process for how to manage interruptions more effectively as a small business owner or solopreneur.

Create a plan to anticipate and mitigate interruptions

Interruptions are going to happen – it’s a fact of life.  Although you may not be able to predict when they will occur, it is possible to plan for them in advance using the power of scheduling.  Here are 3 scheduling strategies to help take the bite out of interruptions.

Cleanup blocks

Cleanup blocks are designated times on your calendar to address interruptions or unexpected issues that arise.  They’re valuable because they provide you with space on your calendar to handle issues that need to be addressed, but aren’t true emergencies.  With cleanup blocks in place, you’ll be less likely to think that you have to “drop everything” to address an issue that comes up.  You won’t be repeatedly pulled away from what you’re working on, which (hopefully) means more progress toward your business goals.

You can pepper cleanup blocks throughout your week, or schedule more than one per day.  For example, you could have cleanup blocks scheduled for:

  • Mid-morning, to address issues that came up the day before, and
  • Mid-afternoon, to address issues that arose that morning

Cleanup blocks can be whatever length works best for you.  30 or 45 minutes are great, but even 15 minutes of cleanup time can be impactful.

You may only need cleanup blocks once per day, or a few per week.  The beautiful thing is, you get to play around with it, and see what works best for you.  If you receive a request, inquiry, etc., you have the option to let clients, contractors, family, and other stakeholders know when to expect a response (during your cleanup block).  For example:

“Jan, this request is on my radar.  I’ll get back to you around 2:30 this afternoon.”

They know you’ll be responding, and you can get back to the work you’d originally scheduled.

Backup blocks

Backup blocks can be used to finish up work on a scheduled task, if you weren’t able to complete it in the time originally allotted.  They act as a failsafe, ensuring that you have some backup time to work on any unfinished tasks

Most of my clients find that scheduling a few hours of backup time each week works best.  For example, you could schedule an hour on Wednesday afternoon and an hour on Friday morning.  If there are any scheduled tasks that you aren’t able to complete, you have some backup time scheduled to work on them.

Cushion time

Cushion time provides some extra space in your schedule to complete a task.  It’s a really simple concept:  Schedule more time (25%-100% more) than you think a task will take.  If the task takes longer than you thought, or you’re interrupted, you have some extra time already built in to get the task done.

For example, it takes me about 2 hours to create and schedule my weekly social media posts.  I block off 2.5 hours on my schedule.  That extra 30 minutes comes in handy if an interruption takes me away from the task temporarily.  If I’m not interrupted and I get done early, I can move on to the next thing on my schedule.

Collaboration blocks

Collaboration time designates space on your calendar for employees, contractors, and other stakeholders to communicate with you.  In many circles, this is also called “office hours.”

For example, you could let others know that you’re available for questions, feedback, etc. from 10:00-11:00 a.m. and 1:30-2:00 p.m.  This gives them specific windows of time to contact you regarding routine issues (reducing potential interruptions), and allows you to focus on the work you’ve scheduled.

Of course, there will be times when it’s necessary to have a conversation outside of your scheduled collaboration blocks.  That’s perfectly okay.  The aim is to mitigate a chunk of the ad hoc interruptions regarding routine issues, so you have more time to get important stuff done in your business.

Establish boundaries and expectations with others regarding your time and attention

Once you have a system in place to anticipate and mitigate interruptions, it’s important to establish and communicate boundaries with the people in your life.  While you ultimately can’t control other people, you can make requests.

That might mean communicating your collaboration block times and/or cleanup times to employees, contractors, etc.  It could also mean letting your partner, kids, or other family members know when you’re available.  For example:

“I want to hear from you, and it’s also important that I’m able to focus on my work during the day.  Please text me for anything that isn’t an emergency.  I’ll check my phone at the top of every hour and get back to you.  Of course, call me if an emergency arises.”

Letting others know when and how you’re available to communicate can significantly cut down on interruptions.

Assess and make decisions on interruptions as they occur

Another important strategy in figuring out how to manage interruptions effectively is to assess interruptions as they occur.

Interruptions are going to happen.  The idea isn’t to drop everything and address each one immediately, or to make a blanket decision to ignore them all. After all, some interruptions will be well worth your time and attention.  Rather, you can assess each interruption and make a decision on whether to address it now, or later.

Tools like the Eisenhower Matrix can help you quickly decide whether or not an interruption is worth your time in the moment.

Here’s a quick rundown of the Eisenhower Matrix, and how you can use it to make decisions on issues that arise.  If the issue is:

  • Urgent and important, do it now
  • Urgent but not important, delegate it (for solopreneurs who don’t have a VA or other person for delegation, this often becomes “do it soon”)
  • Important but not urgent, schedule it
  • Not urgent and not important, don’t do it

Taking a minute or two to assess interruptions as they arise will prevent you from wasting precious time on trivial issues, while also making the more important ones a high priority.

Cleanup blocks come in handy for interruptions that fall into the “important but not urgent” category.  Depending on the level of urgency, cleanup blocks can also be invaluable (especially for solopreneurs) when “urgent but not important” issues arise that you can’t delegate to someone else.

Manage your mindset around interruptions

If you’ve followed me for any length of time, you’ve probably heard me say that time management = mind management.  That philosophy naturally applies to interruptions.

If you find that you get sidetracked by interruptions frequently, one of the best things you can do is to notice what you’re thinking and feeling when it happens.

  • Do you think you need to resolve someone else’s routine issue immediately to make them happy, or because you want them to like you?
  • Are you worried that you won’t be able to stop thinking about the issue until you address it?
  • Do you think you can’t trust yourself to take care of the issue later?
  • Are you struggling with the task at hand, and using the interruption to distract yourself or procrastinate?

The human brain sometimes catastrophizes on what could happen if you don’t “fix” an unexpected issue immediately.  Understanding the reasons why you’re tempted to give in to interruptions can go a long way toward changing your mindset around interruptions (something I help my clients with all the time).

Another way that mindset often plays into interruptions is in how you respond to them.

When you’re interrupted, what do you typically think and feel?  Are you frustrated or angry?  Do you find it easy to get back to work, or does the interruption ruin your concentration?  If part of your day doesn’t go as planned due to an interruption, do you allow it to ruin the rest of your day or week?

As you answer these questions, you might be tempted to think to yourself, “Well, that’s just the way I am.”  It might be the way you are right now, but these are all mindset issues, and it’s possible (and impactful) to change them.

Make changes and adjustments as needed

I want to share one more thing you can do toward figuring out how to manage interruptions effectively.  That’s observing and noticing – the patterns in your life, your impulses, how and why you tend to be interrupted.

There is so much value in just observing and noticing your own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, even beyond the context of time management.  For the sake of brevity, though, I’ll stick to time management for now.

Notice

First, notice who tends to interrupt you.  Do you have an employee who repeatedly asks how to complete the same task?  Maybe there’s a client who checks in a lot to ask where progress is at, and to get information on next steps.  Perhaps your phone is constantly dinging or vibrating due to a group text with colleagues, family members, or friends.

Understand

Once you’ve noticed common interruptions, work to understand why they’re occurring.

Let’s look at the employee who asks the same questions about the same task.  Do they need a process documented?  Are they lacking confidence and seeking reassurance?  Do they just want you to solve the problem for them in the moment?  What are they thinking and feeling that’s leading them to ask the same questions?  And what are you thinking, feeling, and doing that could be encouraging them to engage in the same behavior?

Adjust

Once you’ve determined why the same interruptions keep happening, you have an opportunity to make adjustments.

How can you preempt the employee’s requests?

Can you document a process in writing, video, or audio format?

Would it be helpful to have a discussion with them about trust and autonomy in your relationship with them?

Do you need to convey that you’ve entrusted them with getting the task done using their own skills and resources, so you can work on other things?

Do you need to have a weekly meeting with this person to set expectations and answer questions?

If the same people, things, or events regularly interrupt you, you have an opportunity.  Granted, some interruptions will continue.  But examining why it’s happening, and making adjustments, can significantly cut down on repeated interruptions in the long run.

How to manage interruptions as a small business owner:  Conclusion

Figuring out how to manage interruptions as a small business owner or solopreneur can be challenging.  However, there are several approaches that will help you reduce interruptions, and handle them more effectively when they do occur.

To recap, here are 5 solutions for how to manage interruptions:

  • Create a plan to anticipate and mitigate interruptions
  • Establish boundaries and expectations with others regarding your time and attention
  • Assess and make decisions on interruptions as they occur
  • Manage your mindset around interruptions
  • Make changes and adjustment as needed

By the way, it can be daunting to implement these strategies on your own.  I’ve helped dozens of small business owners develop these skills, and I can help you, too.  It all starts with a free Productivity Power Call.  Schedule yours today, and let’s tackle those interruptions!

About the Author Amy Schield


Amy Schield, MBA is a time management and productivity coach for small business owners. Using a mix of simple tactics and neuroscience-based strategies, she helps clients manage their time successfully, set and achieve goals for business growth, and navigate the mental and emotional side of owning and running a small business. Acting as a personal trainer for the brain, she teaches clients how to get out of their own way, so they can finally build the business they want.

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