Do Not Disturb Strategies

Sometimes you just need to get your head down and get some work done. Do you find that you’re staying late in the office, or coming in really early, just to be productive? If so, you need a “Do Not Disturb” strategy.

In the olden days (i.e. before the introduction of cube farms), getting some quiet time in which to focus was easy — you simply closed your office door. In the modern office, though, there are a myriad attention-seekers. Online, you can choose to shut yourself off — sign off from IM, close down your email (or at least stop it reminding you of new mail every two minutes) or even just unplug yourself. You can turn your cellphone to silent and set your office phone to go direct to voicemail. But what about people coming up to your desk to bug you directly?

Essentially, you need a way to signal to the world that you are busy and getting some serious work done. Pick a hat or scarf or something and wear it whenever you’re “in the zone”. Educate your coworkers and customers that if you have that article of clothing on, then they should turn around, go back to their desk and email you instead. Better yet, get your entire team to adopt such a strategy — that way if one of you is head-down and someone makes to disturb you, your team members will run interference, explaining the system to them.

The most important thing, whatever signal you choose, is to BE CONSISTENT and use the signal sparingly. Some people put on headphones when they want to concentrate, but because they also sometimes put on headphones when they just fancy a little Caliko, noone really knows whether it’s OK to disturb them or not. And when in doubt, chances are folks will go for the option that benefits them most — interrupting you.

UPDATE: This got picked by Lifehacker — great content in the comments there (and now here too!). Particularly it seems that in less of a team situation, having a polite sign can work wonders…

21 Replies to “Do Not Disturb Strategies”

  1. Pingback: Lifehacker
  2. I made a sign with regular printer paper and 2 of those clear paper protector sleeves. One of sleeves contain the actual sign itself, and the other contained a strip of red or green to correspond with the sign above. To change it, all I had to do was flip over the sleeve and pin it back into the wall.

    See it here:

    Sorry for the bad quality, it was taken with a cell phone camera.

    Soon after making the sign for myself I had many requests to make the sign for others in my office as well.

  3. We run a simple common sense rule across the whole team of 120 people, it is not perfect but has helped reduce ‘noise’ in all senses of the word.

    *Every afternoon 2-6, simple no interruption rule in place. Aim to respect other people’s time and concentration
    *Across the whole team space, aim to keep noise levels down to allow max productivity
    *People who need to work together, should do so, but plan the collaboration rather than just interrupt
    *Requests for help or support should be made by email during this time. If you can’t wait until 6 to get a response, see the designated manager
    *If something is show stopping for many people, the manager will interrupt the necessary people/lead
    *Aim to have meetings in the morning

  4. OK, listen. I used to work for a Brazilian restaurant that had these “pegs” that were red on one end and green on the other. (They were yellow in the middle – Brazilian style.) Anyway, there is a dining technique when you want more meat flip the peg so the green side is up. Keep with me, this is going somewhere. Turn red up to stop the meat carving at the table. (It’s a Churrasco if anyone is interested.)

    Office workers would TAKE THEM back to their offices to put on their desk. This peg thing works as a great flag! Green – safe to come over. Red – stay away!

  5. Forgot to mention: Back in the ’70s, IBM and TRW did studies comparing productivity of programmers in communal, open “bull pen” rooms vs. individual offices with terminals, phones, and lockable doors.

    Those in their own offices were anywhere between 40% and 400% MORE productive measured by lines-of-code output because they could block out and lock out distractions but still access via terminal and phone information and people when they needed them.

    Can anybody explain why executives insist on cube-farms for the minions? Is it to enforce some new fad of MBI (management by interruption)? Is it a short-sighted cost decision?

  6. Can anybody explain why executives insist on cube-farms for the minions? Is it to enforce some new fad of MBI (management by interruption)? Is it a short-sighted cost decision?

    Most likely the latter. Office costs are a lot easier to measure than productivity. Also, the reality is that many folks in cube farms aren’t doing “zone” work (like coding/designing) all the time.

    Personally, I’ve done working from home 100%, working in the office 100% and a mix of the two. For various reasons, found the mix most effective … hmm, possibly that’s content for another blog post!

  7. At the risk of being ridiculed, I volunteer what I’ve been using…Hallmark has characters called Hoops and Yoyo and they have “office notes” that you can put on your cube/door and tell the world what’s going on. some of them are frightfully funky (“On a donut run” is a Hoops and Yoyo thing, but not the kind of sign I’d actually use), but I’ve retooled them to say “Out to lunch” etc. They’re laminated, the size of a quarter sheet each and on a ring that I can just flip to whatever mood I’m in. I know, geeked out. I work at a university, and it’s gone over well, although I had to teach the staff how they worked. The website is I think available if you click on my name. Have fun.

  8. The best strategy that I learned years ago to communicate that you are busy to people coming into my office, is to stand up when people enter my office. When I stand up at my desk, people are less apt to hang around and talk and it shortens those interruptions.

  9. We have a system in our office to avoid people like “Candle”, “Swinger” and “Bragger” (office idiots).

    We IM a special code to a friend who then calls us on the phone. Then “oops, I have to get this” and the person is gone.

  10. Hello, I’ve read the firt paragraph and I will keep on reading (I’m not sure about :-). But new strategies, I have not. Only old ones, only present ones. Only MY strategies, everybody must have their. Don’t know, you kow I have not read any more. So, til the next time and… best regards to all of you!


  11. Just something I though of. An ex colleague used to use those big chunky headphones when he didn’t want to be disturbed. Just the look of them meant serious business was underway, and nobody would have dared interrupt (even though he was by no means senior). So how about a set of normal “in the ear” headphones for when you just want a bit of music but don’t mind being disturbed, and a set of mammoth headgear for when you’re in the serious zone. They even make sound blocking headphones for those that don’t want music but just want to block out external sounds.

  12. Looking for a solution for a funky open plan design and development studio. So far I like the idea of police tap (do not cross…) but open to any suggestion.

  13. Can someone please help?

    we have recently moved to an opne plan office and have agreed o implement the red flag policy, i.e red flag = DO NOT DISTURB

    however easier said han done as I cannot find any to purchase anywhere. Please help

  14. I was searching for this specific topic but went on to read some more of your blog entries. Excellent stuff.

    For Scottish Lass, I believe you need a USB traffic light!!! I have attached a link to a place where you can buy this.

    I am certainly getting one…

  15. I work in a classroom. The door can be closed, but that stops no one during my 1.5 hour prep time.

    I tried all kinds of polite notes. Unfortunatly, “friends” never thought the note aplied to them, or they thought the request would only take a second so… I now tape a 5X7 index card with with a bold “NO” written on it. I post it a eye level. It answers every question and has even stopped my principal in his tracks.

  16. I have been looking on line for something, and have found a series of signs for “office etiquette” at the link attached. Still would like something more obvious, like a sign post that can go in the middle of the opening, or will just make a ribbon with velcro attachments to string across the opening.

  17. When I worked in a cube farm, I had a piece of pretty fabric that I pinned across the doorway as “my door is closed” sign / do not disturb… It worked fairly effectively – it was very obvious, and people got the hint quickly… lol

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