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23 May

What you could write on the sign

Datum: 2023-05-23 08:30
A wooden, white painted sign hanging on a nail on a white wall.

If you are lucky enough to have a door which you can close behind you when­ev­er you need a moment or two to work undis­turbed, you will most like­ly have noticed that a door isn’t always enough to keep inter­rup­tions out. 

There is a knock on the door and a col­league pops in to ask if you’ve got a moment. If you have a win­dow fac­ing the cor­ri­dor next to your entrance, the col­league will undoubt­ed­ly stand in it, wav­ing to get your atten­tion. And if you lock it and turn you back, they will unlock it and stick their heads in to ask if every­thing is alright.

For you who pre­fer lis­ten­ing to read­ing, this post is also avail­able as an episode of the Done!” pod­cast:

Talk about this too

Judg­ing by what I hear from all the par­tic­i­pants attend­ing my cours­es and lec­tures who I meet every week, it is most essen­tial that we find ways to clear­ly com­mu­ni­cate that we wish to be undis­turbed to those who would poten­tial­ly seek our atten­tion (col­leagues, most likely).

One easy way to com­mu­ni­cate our desire to some­times be left undis­turbed is to bring it up dur­ing the next group‑, team‑, department‑, office‑, or staff meet­ing and dis­cuss how you will make it clear to the oth­ers when you are avail­able for ques­tions and inter­rup­tions, and when you are not.

Or, sig­ni­fy it with a sign

Per­haps you do not feel entire­ly com­fort­able bring­ing it up dur­ing a meet­ing, for what­ev­er rea­son. If so, the most clear way you can com­mu­ni­cate when you are avail­able and when you are not, is by putting up a sign or note on your door. One clas­sic way of phras­ing your sign is Do not dis­turb”, but per­haps your col­leagues do not per­ceive their pop­ping their heads through your door as dis­turb­ing you. They just want­ed to say hel­lo. Some think that hav­ing a sign at all is slight­ly too imper­son­al and if it reads Do not dis­turb”, some find it down right rude.

But, a sign in itself is just a sign, and you can phrase it in a num­ber of ways. And most impor­tant­ly, we can choose to write some­thing that is both friend­ly and clear. But what? Here are a few exam­ples of what oth­ers have written:

  • A woman I met felt that Do not dis­turb” was too harsh, so she chose to write: Dear col­league; I am delight­ed that you want to speak with me. How­ev­er, I need to work on a par­tic­u­lar­ly impor­tant task undis­turbed right now, but I will be avail­able again at 11 o’clock, so please come back then instead.”
  • Some­one else wrote: Need to con­cen­trate on some­thing right now. Send me an email — I check my inbox every hour.”
  • When I was in the south of Swe­den the oth­er week, a par­tic­i­pant in one of my cours­es told me that her sign says: Pre­tend as if I am not here.” Bril­liant­ly sim­ple, if you ask me.
  • A man told me that he puts up a sign depict­ing a drag­on that sig­nalled to his col­leagues (after hav­ing ini­tial­ly explained its mean­ing to them) that he was unavail­able at the moment — when the sign with the drag­on was on the door, they knew to stay clear of his office.

The peo­ple in the exam­ples have one thing in com­mon — they all strive to unam­bigu­ous­ly con­vey some­thing to any­one who wants to dis­turb them. One per­son sig­nals when they are avail­able, anoth­er sug­gest an alter­na­tive to knock­ing on the door (email­ing them instead), a third per­son helps their col­leagues know how to react to their closed door, and the final per­son uses an image that com­mu­ni­cates a clear mes­sage to his poten­tial visitors.

Do this

If your signs tend to be inef­fec­tive but you still do not want to bring the mat­ter of not being dis­turbed up dur­ing a meet­ing, then try this:

  1. Take a moment to think about what you could write on your sign the next time you need to work unin­ter­rupt­ed with some­thing, and that first of all let your col­leagues to know what to do with the ques­tion or mat­ter they want­ed your opin­ion on, and sec­ond­ly makes it clear to them that you wish to be left alone. The text you choose to write could for instance answer the fol­low­ing questions:
    • What types of ques­tions are you still avail­able for, in spite of want­i­ng to be left undisturbed?
    • When will you be avail­able again?
    • In what for­mat or how do you wish to receive the ques­tion or the infor­ma­tion, rather than face to face? 
    • What are you going to work with while remain­ing undis­turbed? Know­ing this will make it eas­i­er for peo­ple to leave you alone at these times.
    • How could they help you (if they want to) so that you fin­ish faster (and hence become avail­able earlier)?
  2. Cre­ate a first dig­i­tal ver­sion of the sign in your favorite edi­tor or soft­ware so that you have a tem­plate to use the next time you want to be left alone. Mak­ing a first sketch will also make it eas­i­er to con­tin­u­ous­ly refine and improve the sign so that you even­tu­al­ly will have for­mu­lat­ed the per­fect mes­sage in an excel­lent for­mat that will help both you and your col­leagues to get things done.

Some­times a closed door is not real­ly closed

If you hang a pleas­ant­ly phrased but clear sign on your door, your col­leagues will adhere to your request of not being dis­turbed more often. The per­son who seeks your atten­tion will be met with a clear indi­ca­tion of that now isn’t the best moment, but also an indi­ca­tion of when you will be avail­able again. 

You will be left alone to con­cen­trate on your impor­tant task and what you pro­duce will be of high­er qual­i­ty than it usu­al­ly is after hav­ing been inter­rupt­ed time and again through­out try­ing to fin­ish, which in turn reduces the risk of hav­ing to spend time mak­ing cor­rec­tions lat­er on.

What does your sign say?

What have you writ­ten on your sign? I would love to have more exam­ples, so please tell me.

(Anna, who attend­ed one of my lec­tures, has a rather rad­i­cal — and fun — way of sig­nal­ing that she needs to focus.)

Blond woman commuting on a bus while listening to a podcast on her headphones. She is smiling.

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