Controlling Work Interruptions at Home

Man Working in Home Office

Maybe you are lucky enough to work in a separate room with a door that closes, and hopefully, your family and friends understand that working from home is still working.

On the other hand, maybe you share an open-plan living space with a working spouse and a young student or two.  Either way, interruptions at home differ from those you typically get in an office setting. Controlling interruptions when working from home can be challenging, but a little planning and some established rules can help. 

Work interruptions at home come from several directions and can be different from typical workplace interruptions.  People in your household may stop you from working, or friends and family may feel free to stop in to see you since you’re home. They can call you, too, as can coworkers. You can even interrupt yourself because of potential distractions in your home.

Establish a Schedule and Defend It

Setting working hours helps people understand when the kitchen table is your workspace and when it’s available for other things. Telling your family (and yourself) that you work from 8:30 to 1 and 2 to 5:30 lets everyone know when you will be available to help them with a project or answer questions.

Consider making a "Daddy or Mommy is Working" sign for your door or workspace for young children. Have them help make it and explain its meaning.  You can also define your schedule to outside friends and family members who might feel they can call or stop by any time of day.  The keys to a time plan are keeping and defending it.

Keep Your Schedule

 If you tell everyone you start work at 8:30, but you sometimes don't begin working until 9:00, that sends the message that your schedule is flexible and interruptible.  If you decide to start work late, announce it as a conscious decision.  “I’m going to start work at 9:00 today instead of 8:30." Give a reason if you want or don't, but you are reinforcing that you have a set schedule by announcing it. It also gives everyone permission to interact with you until that time. A schedule prevents you from getting distracted by home projects or things happening outside your window. Self-discipline may not be enough when no coworkers are around.

Defend It

Within your household: If your spouse or child comes to you during your working hours, ask them if their question or request can wait until lunchtime or quitting time.  Sometimes you will have to stop work to handle a situation, but your family will begin to understand that you don’t want to be interrupted unless it’s absolutely necessary.  

Other family and friends: Phone calls can be handled the same way. If a friend calls, feel free to ask if they can wait. Promise to call them back when you are free. With today's phones, you can see who's calling and choose not to answer.  If you are concerned about possible emergencies, set up a system for loved ones so you can know you should answer.  Have them call a second time rather than leaving a message if you don't respond or have them text you a 911 type of signal.  Friends and neighbors stopping by can be a problem. You feel awkward turning them away. Step outside to see what they need or let them step inside for a minute.  By staying standing by the front door and reminding them that you are working, hopefully you can discourage future visits.

Coworkers: Since you’re at home and perhaps a coworker also works from home, it might be tempting to gossip call. No one in the office can overhear your conversation, so calling to bend a friendly ear about how much you hate the boss or the current project can be a time-waster. Hopefully, you don’t make such calls but be ready to discourage calls from others.  Once you realize the call has no business substance, say something sympathetic and promise to call after work hours to commiserate. Chances are the gossiper won’t want to spend their personal time in such pursuits.

Shared Calendars- If your office or team uses shared (Google, Outlook, etc.) calendars, you might want to block out times for uninterrupted work so coworkers know you would prefer they not call during those times. It doesn't always work, but it's worth a try.

Environmental Distractions:  In an office setting, distractions are generally limited, and your boss and coworkers are around to keep you engaged in your work.

At home, you are surrounded by distractions from the TV to hobbies and household chores. Keep your schedule and use your calendar to plan your time use.  If you struggle to avoid distraction, try added structure to your workday. There are all kinds of jokes about working in your pajamas, but experts suggest dressing for work at home. Even if you choose office casual, wearing different clothes while you work can reinforce your work schedule for others and yourself. Once you change into “at-home” clothes, you and your family feel free to leave the office behind.  

If your office is the kitchen table, clear it of non-office clutter and set it up for your workday with everything you might need. Making it look more like a desk helps.  If you're distracted by household tasks that need doing, keep a physical or virtual notepad to note things you want to accomplish after work.

Working from home can be great and amazingly productive if you establish a routine and control interruptions from family, friends, and coworkers.  Not everyone can easily shut out their surroundings and ignore distractions. Adding structure and a firm schedule help bolster self-discipline. Remind yourself and your family that you eliminate commute time by working at home and have more personal time but need to get work done during office hours.  You can temporarily alter a schedule when needed, but the more stringent you are about your work time and space, the more easily you will limit distractions.

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