Using “concentric defenses” to keep off interruptions you can’t avoid in other ways

Bamburgh Castle, England

Most of the articles you read about dealing with time- and attention-wasting distractions concentrate on avoiding them altogether (shutting yourself away, better organization, better time allocation) or not adding to their number yourself (minimizing responding to e-mails and IMs, filtering phone calls, avoiding gossiping).

This is fine. But what about those that simply get through such defenses: the phone calls you can’t avoid, the personal visits to your desk, the calls from your boss? Are there any ways to deal with those and still keep your mind focused on what you need to be doing?

There are; and that’s the subject of this article.

What are “concentric defenses?”
The approach I’m advocating is based on the idea of “concentric defenses:” an idea first used by builders of medieval castles. The concept is simple: you start with an outer defense — maybe a ditch or moat — to try to prevent attackers ever reaching you. If that fails, they are faced with high walls and guard towers. Capture those and you find another set of walls and towers inside them. In effect, the attacker has to start all over again.

Drawing of concentric castle

Most castles of this type had maybe three lines of defense, including the moat. Some had four, with a final tower or “keep” inside the second set of walls. I’m suggesting six progressive lines of defense against distractions and interruptions, so you can deal with everything from the thoughtless colleague to the boss who demands that you drop everything else and attention to her need — now!

The six concentric defenses against distractions and interruptions

Here they are. I’m going to assume that you’ve already tried the conventional means of avoid the distractions (noted above) and it’s either broken through or wasn’t going to be stopped by those anyway:

  • The first defense is the simplest: simply ignore the distraction altogether. This won’t work with a personal caller, but it can be done with phone calls and e-mails — so long as you are sure who’s calling. Ignore the interruption until you’re ready to deal with it — which may be never.
  • Your second line of defense should be to note down the subject of the interruption — so you can be sure of dealing with it later — then pay it no further attention. This works well with e-mail requests for data or simple phone calls. Even a few personal visits can be handled this way, so long as the visitor doesn’t expect an extended conversation. Make sure you do get back to it and supply what was asked for. That way, people will trust the process in future and not expect anything else to make them feel certain that you’ve heard.
  • The third line is to deal with those who need to know, clearly, that you’ve heard them and will respond in due course. I call this “acknowledge, note, repeat, and shelve.” Acknowledge the request; make sure they see you note it down (or assure them that you’re doing so); repeat back, if necessary; then shelve. The same proviso applies as with the previous defense: you must prove that you will deal with whatever they wanted — only later, when it suits your schedule.
  • That still won’t be enough for some people, who suspect you’re fobbing them off and will simply ignore what they want; or that “when it suits you” may turn out to be some indefinite time, far in the future, when the response will be useless anyway. For that, use the fourth defense line: “acknowledge, schedule, repeat with scheduled time, and shelve.” You acknowledge the request, set a definite time to deal with it, repeat the time to show you’re committed to it, then shelve the request until then. This works very well with boss-generated requests of a non-urgent nature.
  • By now we’re down to those interrupters who simply won’t accept a promise to deal with the need later. For them, I suggest the fifth line: “Acknowledge, do the minimum, schedule the rest, then shelve and get on.” You acknowledge what they want, do the absolute minimum you can to deal with it right away (to demonstrate that you really will give them what they want), set a firm schedule to complete the job, and shelve it until then. You’ve suffered some interruption, but probably not enough to set you back seriously with what you were doing. This should be your automatic defense for bosses who demand to see action on your part, even when the request is not really that urgent.
  • The final, sixth line of defense is the one you should use with the boss who won’t be satisfied with anything less than instant action on your part, however much that interferes with your other work. In such cases, you need to reverse one of the earlier defenses: you acknowledge the request, note down carefully exactly where you are in what you are currently doing (so you can get back to that place quickly afterwards), deal FULLY with the boss’s imperious demands, and forget about what you had to set aside to do this.

    This last step is vital. If you keep thinking about what you had to leave to deal with the boss’s demands, you’ll feel more and more anxious and frustrated; plus you won’t really have all your mind on whatever you’re having to do to satisfy the boss. It may therefore take you longer, and that will certainly make you feel more angry and stressed.

That is my list of suggestions. You may have found other ways of dealing with distractions you didn’t generate yourself and you can’t avoid. If so, add a comment to this article and share them with other readers, please. Today may be the day you help someone who’s struggling with a problem you know how to solve.

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