Ah, the people who swing by your office or call for a “quick word”… that’s still going on 20 minutes later. Let’s talk about ways you can convey that you’re not available for a chat and/or, once a chat starts, how to extract yourself from it.
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Kelly Nolan: Welcome to The Bright Method Podcast where we’ll discuss practical time management strategies designed for the professional working woman. I’m Kelly Nolan, a former patent litigator who now works with women to set up The Bright Method in their lives. The Bright Method is a realistic time management system that helps you manage it all, personally and professionally. Let’s get you falling asleep proud of what you got done today and calm about what’s on tap tomorrow. All right, let’s dig in!
Hey, hey! All right, so today we’re gonna talk about kind of a lighter topic but one that I know can get kind of annoying for people, and so, let’s talk about the people who swing by or maybe they call or want to Zoom call right away for a quick word or something, just a quick thing, and then it becomes 20 or 30 minutes of your life. And obviously this happens on the one-off occasion, and that’s fine. But I want to just help you feel a little bit more empowered when that happens, particularly when it happens with the same people again and again and again.
I also think this touches on — it doesn’t address fully but it touches on the kind of role that some of us play of being the safe space, the safe person to come to, which is both a wonderful position to be in, and in some ways an honor to be that for that person, but also can really take a lot of time and energy from you.
I think it’s important to realize here that if you’re the safe space that people come to to unload and things like that, that not only is it the interruption and the amount of time that it’s taking from you, but that it also takes an emotional toll on you, so even once the conversation is technically over, you’re left with a lot less energy than you would have otherwise.
And so, it’s just good to have some tools in your toolbox to really approach this and kind of take back just some control around it to the extent you can. Obviously, each person will be different here. Some of you might want to be more open to those informal conversations where people really unload and things like that or other people want to or need to really be focused at work and get the work done during those hours, and so, you can decide how to tailor this for you and feel the right fit for you.
Also, just know you can experiment. You can always start with something. You don’t need to overthink like, “This is how I’m gonna do it going forward.” Try something. Try it for a couple of weeks. I would give it a good shake, because I think the first time you try something can go a little sideways sometimes. So it’s okay to try again until you feel like you’ve given it a fair shake, and then you can always modify from there if you need to.
All right, so let’s go over some simple strategies. None of these are gonna blow your mind, but they’re just some nice reminders, and then you can pick one or two things you want to implement. I want to start with ideas to prevent the people from swinging by, and then let’s talk about what to do when you’re in the middle of a swing-by situation or a phone call or things like that. Then we’re gonna talk about if you’re a hybrid, some options there, and we’ll wrap it up from there.
Prevention – 3:08
All right, so to prevent people from swinging by, one idea that you can have is just noticing who is coming by your office all the time and what topics are they bringing up. So this will be a little bit different if it’s kind of an emotion out of not technically work conversation all the time, that’s kind of one category. But often these are pretty much related to work in some ways. And so, what I want you to think about is would it be helpful to have a standing meeting with that person and really ask them to hold questions until that time?
The reason this might work for you is that the person who’s feeling that anxious need to ask questions all the time, or maybe it’s not anxious, but the need to ask questions all the time. If you can give them an alternative of, “Hey, let’s just get together. We’ll corral all these questions so that they’re not interrupting each of our workdays. We’ll have a standing meeting at this time. We can always move it around if we need to a little bit, but we will always have it. This will give you the opportunity to ask the questions that you have, and then just keep a list of the questions that you want to ask me, and we’ll go from there.”
What I want to say here is (and we’ve talked about this on other episodes) is really make sure you’re honoring it. The person’s only going to be able to trust that you’ll have the meeting and therefore hold their questions until that meeting, which makes your life easier, as long as they know that you’re going to actually have the meeting. So just really getting in the habit of both making sure you have the meeting and also know that you might have to kind of enforce that boundary a little bit, especially in the beginning.
So let’s say you talk to this person, they swing by your office two to five times a day, and you really want them to save their questions for a period of time, so you set up a standing meeting once a week for half an hour, 45 minutes, anything like that, and just know that as you first set it up, those first two weeks they’re probably going to still swing by. And as soon as you start gleaning that this is a question that really can be saved, you can say, “Hey, great question! Please save it for our meeting.” “Hey, great question! Please save it for our meeting.” You can always allow the questions through that really will hold them up, but really know and expect that you’ll have to train them a little bit and maintain that boundary with them, and that’s okay. I think sometimes we forget that, as with anything, some people have to hear things a couple times, including myself. And so, just know to not get defeated or frustrated or take it personally when they don’t always comply with what you envisioned right away and just keep maintaining that boundary, and hopefully over time they will really understand what warrants maybe a diversion from that standing meeting kind of corralling questions thing, and then what can it wait until that period of time?
If you don’t like the standing meeting idea, another opportunity is really just to clarify how you like getting questions. And so, this can be, “Please email that question to me instead.” Just really trying to help them understand the lines of communication that you like for certain things, especially if it’s not a pressing question. If something is on fire, then of course they can swing by your office. But if it doesn’t get to that level, please email me instead. It’s up to you, but it’s kind of setting, again, some sort of kind of communication boundary around, “Unless it’s a fire, please email me so we’re not interrupting our day.” Same thing goes, just know that you might have to enforce that. Know that they might mess up a couple times and keep swinging by because it’s their habit, and they might think something’s a fire that’s not. And so, you can explain, “You know, great question! Can you shoot me an email with that? I really need to focus on this right now, and I know that can wait for a day or two,” and just kind of help train them in a way and educate them on those distinctions.
If it’s more of the emotional category where someone has something going on in their life and they’re really struggling with it, then you can make an exception to all of this. This is all up to you. If it’s really interrupting your days and going on for a long period of time, what you could start thinking about is your balance of, “Do I want to be there for this person? And when do I want to be there for them?” So that you could say, “Hey, I really want to be here for you through it. I really do need to focus on whatever I’m working on right now,” and I would make it visible and say what you’re working on. But say, “Hey, could we go to lunch together later? Could we sit together?” if your employer has an eating area. “Can we go on a walk later?” if they want more privacy. But really try to corral when it happens and take some control over when it happens and in what context so that you can maybe confine it in time to an extent, corral it, and really make clear that right now you do need to work.
Okay, so this first idea of preventing people from swinging by, the first couple tips are considering setting up standing meetings or more like communication guidelines like, “Please email me this type of thing.” So that you are having a little bit more control of when these questions are coming at you and in what form and know that you’re going to need to educate and enforce that distinction over time until people learn it themselves. And then if it’s more of that emotional conversation that someone’s not gonna email you or set up a standing meeting for you about that type of thing, is still trying to find some sort of middle ground where, if you want to be there, you can still be there for that person but in a context that makes sense for you.
A couple other tips to help you just kind of prevent people from swinging by — and these two are more for when you’re in the office, so just know that this isn’t really gonna help you with calls or Zoom calls, but these would help you if you were in the office. The two tips are putting a sign on your door, saying that you’re unavailable. I really like putting the specific time that you will be available on there. I think people get nervous when they feel like they’re not going to get to talk to you today, if there is something they need to talk to you about, but if you say, “Please don’t interrupt. I will be free at 2:00 PM,” and then you set an alarm for 1:50 to wrap up your work so you actually open that door at 2:00 PM, people are more likely to honor that because they can then know when to come back to talk to you.
I’ll just say that you don’t want to have your door closed and the sign on the door all the time. I think we all wish we could. But you want to make sure that it’s rare enough that people will respect it. So just know that you’re gonna want to just balance that a little bit, but when you are trying to focus and protect a time to do that, feel free to close the door, put that sign up, and just clarify what time you’ll be done, and then honor that so people can rely on what you’re telling them.
Then the last one, this is what I did a lot, is I worked — my law firm, my second firm, was a very doors-open culture, and so, I would keep my door closed a fair amount, but I also have a glass pane so people could just look in my office whenever they wanted, and it’s hard to ignore that. And so, I would either — either when I was keeping the door open or when the door was closed but people could still look in, I was a big fan of headphones. At the time, AirPods weren’t a thing when I was practicing law. You know, the little ones were, but I got those big over-the-ear headphones so that it was a very clear no one’s gonna miss that I’m wearing headphones right now. That was helpful to where, even if I wasn’t listening to anything inside the headphones, it was a nice indication that I am not available to talk right now. And when people would interrupt, because they do even when you’re wearing headphones, I would — and it’s hard to do on a podcast. I would love to show you in person. I would move one of the headphones from one of my ears and just hold it and be like, “Yeah? What’s up?” But it was a nice indication where I could, in my voice, be friendly but I’m clearly signaling this is not gonna be a long conversation. I’m just holding one AirPod or headphone thing away from my ear and indicating it’s not gonna be a long conversation.
Okay, so to recap, standing meetings or communication guidelines, know you’re gonna need to enforce them. Really getting clear on, if it’s emotional, when you might want to have those conversations and try to corral them. Put a sign on the door and be as specific as you can. Also, use those headphones as a visual signal that you’re not available right now. But people are going to swing by, or they’re going to call you randomly, so what do you do in those scenarios?
What to Do in the Midst of a Swing By – 11:22
First, I’m a big believer that if anyone is just swinging by your office or just calling you randomly, they can wait a minute or two for you to kind of wrap up what you’re doing. Even if you can’t wrap up what you’re doing in a minute, and that’s I think most things, you could grab a Post-it note or write on top of the piece of paper, like the top piece of paper you’re working on or even do a quick email to yourself if you don’t have any paper in front of you. And I like to use that time to write next steps. I’ll write “Next steps: whatever I was gonna do next.” And it really helps me get back to what I was going to do before that person swung by or called.
And by the way, if someone calls you, I often let things go to voicemail. So I’m not saying you have to pick up. That’s not the assumption here. Please know that you can if you can let a call go to voicemail, like I did that all the time, I think that’s great. I think we can’t just live our life to be interrupted all the time. But if you do pick up or you do have to talk to that person and you can’t say, “I just can’t talk right now. Can I talk to you later?” If that doesn’t work, that’s kind of the assumption here, and this is what to do in those scenarios.
So, in those scenarios, I used to like to say, “Sure, I can talk but give me one minute,” or if someone answered, I could be like, yep, same thing. “Sure, I can talk, but give me a minute,” and I would just quickly scribble down or type out what was I gonna do next, what are the next steps, so that when I get back to it, I can get back into it versus sitting there for five or ten minutes being like, “I know I was gonna do something, but I can’t remember what that idea was.” It really, really helps me to do that.
On the frontend, I also like to say something like, “Sure, I have two minutes.” If you want to be a little crazy, totally up to you, you could even set a timer for two minutes, not to time the conversation, but to say, “Because I could talk to you all day long, I’m actually gonna set a timer because I really do only have two minutes,” and then you get that timer enforcement mechanism.
And I know some of you are probably like, “You are crazy. I’m never gonna do that,” which is totally fair. But in a scenario that you do feel somewhat comfortable in doing it, you might want to try it. Again, I always frame it like, “I could talk to you all day. I could really get carried away with this,” blah, blah, blah, blah, “I really do need to turn to this thing again,” or “I have to run to a meeting,” or things like that, “So I’m gonna set a timer just to make sure I don’t get too immersed in this.” So I think you can frame it, unless you think that’s super weird too, which you might. If you don’t, if it’s good enough, you can borrow that type of framing so that you’re not just like, “I’m gonna set a timer for ten minutes so we don’t talk a lot longer.” I think there’s a way to do the same action but frame it in a more kind, approachable way if that makes sense.
Okay, so then you’re having the conversation and either the timer goes off or you just know you need to wrap it up, or you’re like, “Oh, my gosh, this conversation is going on and on and on, and I need to get back to work,” I, similarly, like coming up with phrasings of ways that I can wrap up a conversation in a kind way, in a way I feel good about but that I’m wrapping it up. And so, some examples — and you can play with this and find your own — is again, saying something like, “I really could talk to you all day. I do need to get back to this,” or “This has been so much fun or awesome or just the break I needed,” or whatever it might be, “Unfortunately, I really do need to get back to this,” and 90% of the time, for me, it’s completely genuine. I really could talk to that person all day long. I love talking to the people I get to talk to. I often loved my colleagues. So I really could have talked to them all day long, but I also got to get back to that thing, and so, I just share that as just being frank about that. Be honest and transparent of, “I love talking to you, but I just have to control myself and get back to this work.”
And so, come up with some phrases that would feel good for you that feel comfortable enough. This sounds weird, but if you want, practice them out loud. Close your eyes and envision being in your office or being on the phone and saying them. Just practice them a couple times so that they’re more on the tip of your tongue when the time comes.
I also encourage you to make your work physical, especially if the person you’re talking to is your boss or someone who’s really senior or even a client. What you might want to consider doing is also making the work that you need to turn back to visible, so it’s not just like, “I’ve got to get back to this thing,” or “I’m really busy,” or things like that. Use this as an opportunity to remind them of the solid work you’re doing. I would only do this with a client if it’s their work you’re getting back to, but if it’s someone outside of your organization say, “I need to turn to this now so that we can make sure we get this done for you.” People, I think, will like hearing that. I think it’s just natural. If it’s a boss or someone else that is internal, you can remind them of a different thing you need to work on, like, “Absolutely. That said, I just have to get back to this thing because we have this deadline tomorrow, and I need to wrap up this side of things.”
I think we all could benefit from raising the visibility of the work that we’re doing to the people that have a say in our job performance and reviews and all that kind of stuff, and I think it also is motivating for the person to let you go because you are doing work that they value and have input on. I also think, for some people, it’s helpful to have those reminders for when, let’s say, in an hour when they get a new case and they’re like, “Oh, let me staff so-and-so on this,” or a new project — sorry, I always go into litigation mode. But a new something, and they think, “Oh, I could put this person on it. Oh, you know what? No, just kidding, they were working on that deadline.” You’re reminding them of your current workload, to a degree. Not necessarily the workload but the work itself, and so, they are more apt to remember what you are working on and not bury you in more work because they know the important work you’re doing.
So all of that, this section of stuff, really goes for people who swing by or are on the phone. So again, it’s next-step notes. It’s okay for you to ask them to just hold a minute while you write your next-step notes or wrap something up. Start off the conversation by saying, “I have X number of minutes, and then I really do need to blah, blah, blah.” Then to wrap up, come up with that phrasing of, “Oh, I could talk to you all day long,” or “This has been wonderful,” or “This is just the break I needed, but I really need to get back to this,” and then make the work that you’re turning back to visible if you can, if it makes sense, so that you’re reminding the people of what you’re working on.
The other thing I’ll say is if you are in the office, and I’ve had plenty of experiences like this, where they will not leave, they just are like, “Okay,” and then they keep talking, and you’re like, “Oh, my gosh, I’m trapped at my desk,” and in that case, the danger there — not the danger, but the hard part is that you’re kind of a sitting duck. Like, you’re just sitting there and they’re like standing in your doorway or sitting at your desk, at the chair across the desk, and they’re just talking and talking to you, and what I have found, the best way to do this, is to remove me being the sitting duck component.
So I will stand up and say something like, “I’m gonna actually go refresh my coffee,” or “I need to use the restroom,” or “I need to go see this person. Do you want to walk with me?” It’s this friendly way to move them out of your office and start walking but then you get to the restroom or the coffee or you go see the person, and you’re like, “Thanks for chatting! I’ll talk to you later.” And it sounds — I don’t know. Maybe it’s silly, but it really came in clutch for me many times, so I wanted to share it. Remove the sitting duck component of this if the person will not leave and not stop talking. Change the scenario and start moving, and you can do it in a friendly way, but it helps you escape.
Hybrid Employees – 18:49
All right, a final note I wanted to say on this is if you are someone who’s hybrid. So you go in once, twice, three times a week, whatever it might be, and then you get to work from home a couple times a week, and this varies by person. So someone listening is like, “I focus better when I’m at the office.” That’s great. Somebody else might be like, “I can’t get anything done in the office when I go because people swing by my office all the time.” And what I want you to think about is, one, which of those camps do you fall into and also where is the value in there. Because for some people — and we’ve talked about this in the manager maker episode — for some people, being in the office and being available to your team to come to you and help you move all these projects forward by having these conversations might be really valuable for you.
And so, I just want you to hear that. While I love to help reduce the swingerbyers, there are scenarios where that is part of your role to be that available. That said, I always want you to protect some focused time, so all of these things that we’ve talked about go towards whenever you’re trying to focus. And so, just know that. But my point is, when you are a hybrid, try to matchmake the type of work you’re trying to do to your environment. So when you are at home, try and think about what type of work is best there verses when you’re working in the office, what type of work is best there.
So if you’re getting interrupted at the office all the time, don’t try and do some massive, focused project when you’re in the office that day. Allow yourself to be more open, or even if you’re not, just know that you’re kind of accepting that you’re gonna be more interrupted than you would be. Even if you do a lot of these strategies, hopefully you are less interrupted, but you still are probably gonna be interrupted.
So really think about the smaller, bite-sized, more easily interruptible things. Try and do that with your work when you’re in the office versus, again, trying to do some sort of focused work. Just accept the reality of the situation. Try and change it to the extent you can, as we’ve talked about, but just know that it might be more interrupted, so account for that in your plans of the type of work you’re trying to do. And then when you’re working at home, you can do that more focused work.
And if it’s the flip for you, just apply that in the flip. If you need to do the focused work when you’re in the office, great. And when you’re at home, if you’re more distracted and interrupted and things like that, do that more bite-sized, easily interruptible work at the office.
All right! I hope that helped. Interruptions happen. They’re a part of life. People swinging by, people calling you, it is what it is. But to the extent that we can get intentional with our time and take back some control, I hope you got a nugget or two that you can implement to help you do that. Have those phrases at the ready, practice them, really act on this stuff, and bring them to life because you do have the right to control your time as best as possible, and I hope that some of these tips help you do that.
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