Learn how to handle interruptions - if you've got a moment
If you can read through this whole article without being interrupted once, give yourself a gold star and turn the page. This is not written for you. This is written for all the folk out in jingle-jangle land where telephones whine, people pop in unexpectedly, and all important meetings are preceded by a copier breakdown.
Interruptions, says one wit, are the things that make full-time careers out of part-time jobs. Many jobs, in fact, are built around interruptions - responding to a customer, meeting the immediate needs of a boss, answering an employee's questions. Yet these duties can often be scheduled, time management experts say.
Take the telephone (please). Some workers, especially those who find they must be out of their office for much of the time, regularly schedule ''call back'' hours in the early morning and late afternoon, so those taking messages can promise a definite return of the call.
Not everyone's job fits neatly into this system, writes Ann Montgomery in a new book, ''The Secretary's Administrative Handbook'' (John Wiley & Sons, $19.95 ). She advises a screening system for use by secretaries, putting through only the most important calls and taking informed messages on the rest. ''The question '... and may I tell Mr. Elliot the nature of your call?' is not offensive unless it is asked before you have indicated whether Elliot is 'in' or 'out,' '' she writes. ''In turn, the answer received opens the door to other courses of action. Perhaps you can handle a question right then and there. Perhaps you can gather information helpful to your executive when the call is returned.''
Ms. Montgomery has a good idea, too, on how to handle calls from The Boss. ''When a call from a key executive comes in and the manager is out and around,'' she observes, ''the secretary has a tendency to set out immediately on a tracking mission. Let's offer an option,'' she suggests. ''In response to such a call, you could say, 'Mr. Elliot is away from his desk right now but I can locate him if you would like. Otherwise, I expect him back within the next 15 minutes.''
If most of your interruptions come from your boss, writes another time management expert, try explaining to him tactfully that you're trying to get more control of your time. Then schedule one or two daily appointments for the two of you to review routine matters.
If you can't foist at least part of the problem off on your secretary - if you have no secretary, or if you are a secretary - try falling back on the switchboard operator or a machine, says Gretchen Hirsch in ''Womanhours'' (St. Martin's Press, $4.95). ''There are some hardy souls, however, who can ignore the insistent jangle (of the telephone). I congratulate them and advise continuation of this habit,'' she says.
Sometimes the interruption intrudes, not with a nagging ting-a-ling, but in person. Ms. Montgomery thinks that, even if your boss is hiding in plain sight, the secretary can deal with drop-ins by saying, ''I'm sorry, but Mr. Elliot has an unbelievable schedule today. He's to be in a meeting just a few minutes from now and from that point on his time is completely booked. If you'd like, though, may I schedule an appointment for you another day?''
Just asking to make an appointment with an interrupter, say the experts, helps him assess the nature of his call. If it's important, they say, he'll appreciate your willingness to meet with him at a definite time. If it's not, you can check off one unnecessary interruption.
Ms. Hirsch points out that it's often not people but things that cause interruptions - the copier breaks down, the file system hides an essential document, the computer takes a little nap. ''Because of the emphasis in this country on disposability, you, like many others, may have forgotten the concept of caring for possessions,'' she writes. ''Do you mistreat things until they go on the fritz and then grumble about down-time?''
Ms. Hirsch advocates using a service contract and plenty of preventive maintenance on machines. Others add that keeping an accurate inventory and regularly checking your supplies eliminate many interruptions - who knows what kingdom may be lost for lack of a typewriter ribbon?
Then there's the one Ms. Hirsch calls the ''head honcho of the interruption hierarchy'': ourselves. ''All the ways you're interrupted by outsiders are also ways you may interrupt yourself,'' she says. ''Do you substitute a phone conversation for an unpleasant task?'' she asks. Are you a ''too-frequent visitor? Throwing a wrench into every-one else's day won't resolve your dilemma.''
Not all interruptions can be eliminated, of course. Some of them - the chat that maintains rapport with a customer, the crisis that really does need immediate attention - will always demand our time. But many interruptions, say the experts, can be managed - as soon as you answer that phone.