How to Deal with Disruptions That Interrupt Your Productive Routines?

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You’ve established a set of habits and they serve you well. When you stick to them, as you do most of the time, they keep you moving forward. You make progress, reach goals, meet deadlines, and focus on what’s important.

Yay, you! But then: life. Life is so unhelpful. So unpredictable. So disruptive.

Life is just chockfull of people, and people? Are the worst. So rude, with their needs and desires and absolute zero sense of respect for your goals, deadlines, schedules, and habits.


Whatcha gonna do?

Option 1: Remove thyself to cabin in the woods, become a hermit, and be undisturbed to pursue your routines. I’m pretty sure the bears will leave you alone. I can’t guarantee wifi accessibility.

Option 2: Learn how to deal with the disruptions that will happen and maintain your habits in spite of them.

If you’re going with Option 1 (and I don’t really blame you), here’s what you need.

For Option 2, keep reading.

What a Disruption is?

Disruption is different than what I call a breakdown (or a miss): a breakdown is when you hit snooze instead of getting up and going to the gym, or you keep reading that novel until 2am and totally blow your habit of going to bed at a reasonable hour. A breakdown is a break in your habit due to your own choice.

Disruption, on the other hand, is an external force or change in situation. Disruption makes your normal sequence of habits (routine) impossible. It’s not a choice you make, but a circumstance you must face.

Here are a few examples:

  • You have a morning routine of getting up early and spending an hour writing quietly before everyone else gets up; but when you travel, your schedule changes (you’re up later due to travel times) and your environment changes (you’re sharing a hotel room and don’t want to disturb others).
  • You have work routine of moving from one important core task to another in your morning work hours, but an email from a client comes in the middle of your first core task. The client – who’s a great client – needs your immediate help on revising a project.
  • You have a wind-up-the-day habit of doing a quick review and planning your schedule and making notes on follow-up work, but just as you get started, the doorbell rings. It’s your neighbor, who needs to borrow something and wants to chat.
  • You have a weekend routine that helps you prep for the next week: you catch up on laundry, clean, plan the menu, grocery shop, and catch up on mail and bills. But this weekend you have out-of-town visitors who want to see the sights during the weekend, so you won’t have the time you normally do.

Types of Disruptions

Type 1: Valid, Priority Disruptions occur, but not very often. These are the only disruptions that merit your complete attention, even if it means throwing your routine out the window.

There are (as far as I can tell) only three genuine disruptions of this nature, and they are

  • emergencies
  • vacations
  • very, very special situations (Beware! There are so many slightly special situations or kind of special situations that will try to worm their way into the very very special category. Don’t let them.)

So if your neighbor at the door is bleeding from the head and needs a ride to the emergency room, you drop everything and do it.

Or if you are on vacation, you drop work and don’t worry about being productive and relax and enjoy your vacation.

Or if you find yourself faced with one of those very, very special situations – which means that it is both rare and important – you put aside your habits and focus on the situation.

Most of the time, the disruptions we face are not valid, priority disruptions. They’re just your standard, run-of-the-mill disruptions. The kind that really really want to be more important than they are.

Type 2: Standard Disruptions are the ones you face on a weekly or daily basis.

They come in two main categories: a regular, or recurring disruption, or a one-time, unpredictable (and most likely, not repeated) disruption.

Examples of Recurring Disruptions:

  • travel (if travel is something you do regularly)
  • interruptions from family members
  • unforeseen work needs/projects/emergencies
  • invited guests
  • your dog barking incessantly at the squirrels/stray cat/leaves/air

Examples of One-Time Disruptions:

  • your child falls out of the tree and breaks his arm
  • your editor emails with a last-minute article need
  • the plumbing explodes
  • uninvited guests
  • laser monkeys attack, intent upon securing the secret phalanx of power, which has been hidden in your possession for decades, unbeknownst to you. To save the universe from certain doom, you must dismantle their mind-warping gun, extract yourself from the hordes of flesh-eating laser monkeys, and ensure your big toe’s safety while battling the Diabolic Captain of the laser monkeys with a steak knife and a waffle iron.

How to Deal with Standard Disruptions?

Modify or Flex for Recurring Disruptions

For recurring disruptions, you need a strategy that will work in more than one situation. There are two basic options:

  • Modify: create a modified routine which you can use when the disruption occurs. This is an ideal method for a disruption like traveling. When you travel, your schedule and environment will be different. You may not be able to go through your normal routine, but chances are you can manage some simplified version of it. Perhaps you do 10 minutes of stretching instead of 30 minutes of running; or you sneak down to the hotel lobby for some work time in the morning instead of skipping out on that productive morning time altogether.
  • Flex: create a more flexible routine that allows you to absorb the disruption without getting completely off-track. Perhaps your normal work routine is to do Core Task A for 45 minutes, and then tackle Core Task B for 1 hour, and then move on to your less important tasks for the day. Try being less specific in your routine by simply designating 2 hours for the most important core tasks of the day, whether that’s A or B or D or E. You can then count on that work being done – your core tasks, not the details – even if which core task you do during that time might change according to the demands and disruptions of each day.

Push Back or Skip Ahead for One-Time Disruptions

For one-time disruptions, you need a standard way to quickly deal with the disruption and get back to work.

  • Push Back: simply put your routine on pause, go deal with the disruption, and then come back and pick up where you left off in your routine. This method is ideal, because it avoids you missing any important part of your routine, but it requires total time flexibility. Most of us don’t have that. If you do, however, go with it. You might finish your routine up an hour or three later than normal, but you will still finish and know you’ve done the important work.
  • Skip Ahead: when you don’t have that kind of time flexibility, you learn to skip to the next part of your routine. Deal with the disruption, then come back to your routine and “skip ahead” in time to the point you should be at now. So if you’ve spend 1 1/2 hours dealing with the disruption, put yourself into the routine that you would normally have reached in that time. This means you’ll miss out on part of your routine, but it also means that your whole day won’t be shot. You will still get work done by skipping ahead, and you will stay on track with the needs of your schedule.

What do you do when faced with disruptions that throw you off your routine?

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  1. Ryan K Biddulph Avatar
    Ryan K Biddulph

    Commented on

    Sometimes I want to choose the hermit bit Atul LOL. I dig these tips buddy. I love breathing deeply, relaxing and simply being with the disruption so I can proceed calmly and clearly.

    1. AtulHost Avatar

      Commented on

      Awesome Ryan, these are the nice habits to follow when mind is upset.