"Can I interrupt you for a second – do you have a minute?"
This is the sound of productivity being shot through the roof. However, every day, we need to decide how much time we want to spend focusing on our work and how much time we want to give to our nonprofit staff.
The other morning I had an interruption just as I started my workday. I bet you've had that happen to you. Just as you begin something, there's a knock at the door or a text or phone call.
How do you know when to deal with or ignore the interruption?
Consciously deciding when to let interruptions in and when not helps you focus on what you need to focus on when you need to, set clear boundaries, and be there for people when they need them. Learning to balance your people and your projects is a balancing act for most leaders.
We need to get stuff done. We have reports to write, emails to send, applications to fill out, preparation for meetings, and all the other stuff that goes along with achieving our mission-driven work.
Effective leaders learn to balance the "task work" with being in relationship with (aka being there for) the people who do our organization's client and community work.
The question is:
How do you know when to let the people side of your work interrupt the task side of your work and, conversely, when to stay focused on the task?
My interruption this morning was from my granddaughter. School is out now. When I see my granddaughter's name pop up on my phone, I know that she's likely looking for some attention or that something is wrong. She's ten years old and home alone in the morning for a couple of hours. I answered my phone to discover she wanted to borrow some eggs so she could make herself French toast.
For you, it may be a staff that needs to look over their work, a crisis that has blown up, or somebody who wants to pick your brain. You may have a good idea of who the interruption is from and be able to use that information to help you make a decision.
How I dealt with my interruption
In addition to wanting to borrow eggs, my granddaughter wanted to know when I was going for a walk, and I could tell she was bored. So I told her to come over and get the eggs, and I would look and let her know when my break was later in the day so we could go on a walk together.
How you can deal with your interruptions
Learning how to deal with interruptions in a way that feels good to you starts when you build a framework around decisions making. Here are 3 steps to consider to help you make decisions about interruptions you can feel good about.
STEP # 1 - Start by being clear with what's on your agenda
While I didn't have calls scheduled for that early in the morning, I did have a project I was working on slotted into that time frame. Awareness of your agenda items is one of the critical factors in deciding whether to allow yourself to be interrupted. Scheduling in non-meeting tasks creates a meeting with yourself, a commitment and a tool for determining if you will let the interruption in.
🤔 Ask yourself these questions:
STEP # 2 - Set clear boundaries
I told my granddaughter she could come over and get the eggs, but I didn't have time for a long chitchat. However, even though I set that boundary, she lingered when she showed up, and I had to nudge her out the door after about nine hugs!
You've been there, right? You answer the question or deal with the issue, and then you do the typical nonverbals to suggest that the conversation is over. You even may say something like, ok, I better get back at it and yet they still stand there, ask more questions, hem and haw etc. Here's the tricky part about allowing interruptions. It's creating a time frame boundary around the interruption.
🗣 Try using these phrasesYou will need to be extremely clear on the timelines upfront and continue to communicate those timelines throughout
Here's an example
The clearer you can be with your boundaries, the easier it is to hang up the phone, end the chat, or shut the door at the end of the interruption.
As much as my granddaughter wanted to linger, I knew it was time for her to go as I walked her to the door. I followed up, ensuring she knew what time I had a break later and that I would message her to go for a walk with her then. I didn't brush her off. Instead, I scheduled time to connect with her when I could give her my undivided attention.
STEP # 3 - Know what's important to you
I had to know what's important to me, what I value
Finally, it's essential to know and understand your values. Family is incredibly important to me. My granddaughters mean the world to me, but I'm also committed very deeply to the work I do for you. Balancing connection to family and deep, meaningful work has been a lifelong challenge. It's not something that comes easily, there is no quick formula, and the parameters will continually change.
You, too, need to be clear on what you value
My advice to you here is to be as transparent in your mind as possible. Try these two questions.
❤️ Start with verifying your values
Through the Values Verification course exercises, I recognized that my top value is not family. Instead, my top value is excellence. That clarity around what is ultimately important to me helps me make these decisions more clearly.
How can I provide excellent quality to you and, at the same time, be an excellent grandma? The answer is by giving quality time and attention to the project that I had scheduled for that morning and quality time and attention to my granddaughter.
I had to be "excellent" in both areas
If I had let my granddaughter interrupt my morning for any longer than I did, I would not have been an excellent grandma; I would've been a distracted grandma. Letting her interrupt the time I had scheduled for the project would have made me feel edgy. I would have been thinking about what I "should" be doing. I would have been trying to end the little visit multiple times, but discreetly, so she didn't feel like I was finishing it. It would have come across as icky for both of us.
I honoured my value of excellence in two areas of my life by setting and communicating clear boundaries and scheduling time for both areas.
3 questions to help you feel good about the decisions you make
Making decisions about interruptions like this doesn't come easily or quickly.
It takes time to understand how to make these decisions more quickly. That time often comes through after-the-fact self-reflection.
✏️ Take a moment to think about your decisions in the last 24 hours.
Engaging in ongoing self-reflection helps you prepare for future decisions, communicate boundaries, and apologize when you get it wrong because we likely will more than once.
Sometimes it is worth letting someone interrupt you, and sometimes it isn't
Time, or lack thereof, is the biggest bottleneck for most nonprofit leaders because there are so many other demands on your time and attention beyond your core mission. There are always more things that you need to do. However, we also learn to balance what time we give time to our people and when to use it for projects.
Being clear with what's on your agenda, knowing what's important to you and communicating clear boundaries will help you be both productive and create engagement with your nonprofit team!
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