Simple answers for walk-ups

“What is it now?”

One of the biggest sources of distractions for me at work is the so-called “walk up”.  We work in an open environment: no walls, cubicles, offices, or other impediments.  On the one hand, it is tremendously liberating, in that it breads a culture of cooperation and agility unlike any other company I’ve worked for.  However, the downside is that it is extremely difficult to avoid people walking up to you at the most inconvenient of times.  Over time, I’ve developed the following strategies to mitigate this incessant problem.

30 now or 30 later

One of the first things I’ll say to someone who walks up to my desk is “Stop!  Before we go any further, you should know that I have a 30 second limit for walk-ins.  However, I’d be happy to set aside a half hour if you’ll set something up on my calendar.  So, you have a choice to make: thirty seconds now, or thirty minutes later.”  The idea is simple: you can interrupt me now, but you’ll pay because your time is limited.  Over time, more and more people just give up and schedule meetings in advance (which leads to a calendar full of somewhat useless meetings, but that’s a topic for another day).

Make it obvious you’re not to be disturbed

The Cranking Widgets Blog published some excellent ways to get those pesky walk ups to just, well, walk away.  Of those they listed, my favorite include:

  1. Wear Headphones – Noise-canceling ones are essential to blocking out the constant chatter.  Combined with some jazz or other relaxing music from Pandora, these greatly enhance my ability to focus on the task at hand.
  2. Hang a Sign – My favorites have included “Work In Progress – Do Not Disturb” and “Emergencies Only – Disturbers Will Be Prosecuted”.  While I don’t have a cubicle or office wall to place these on, I find putting them nicely on the outside corner of my desk does the trick.
  3. Say “I’m Busy” – This could be as simple as a small but firm gesture towards the aforementioned sign.  Occasionally, however, a less subtle approach is needed.  You don’t need to be rude or abrupt; I usually say something along the lines of “Sorry, but I’m really busy at the moment, and unless this is a real emergency, can you please just schedule some time on my calendar?”

Book a meeting with yourself

To the above three excellent suggestions I’ll add a fourth, which comes from project management guru Scott Berkun: book yourself a conference room.  I usually reserve this for times when I require the singular focus that comes only with isolation.  If abused, it could not only anger your management due to your frequent absence, but also those who are trying to actually use those conference rooms for legitimate meetings.


  1. @ubertech: Thanks for the comment! It’s also a personal favorite of mine. Definitely not one to pull out too often, but when used with discretion it can’t be beat.


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