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Dealing With Interruptions
(image courtesy of Gerd Altmann via pixabay.com)
Interruptions are the bane of a creative person’s existence. There is so much that is lost when we are denied uninterrupted work time. We learn to work in the pockets of time that we have, and we learn how to steal time and shape time to meet our needs.
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That said, setting firm boundaries to limit interruptions is vital to our well-being, not just for creative work, but for everything.
I am someone who needs large swaths of uninterrupted time to be my more creative AND productive. I have to be both in order to work on the types of projects I want and need to work on. I find deadlines, including self-imposed ones, useful. But I do not want my day micro-managed. For me, that means no daily “To Do” lists. They do more harm than good for me. I know what needs to get done loosely in the day, week, month. But the moment to moment (if we lived in a script, it would be beat to beat) needs to have flexibility and flow, not be pre-determined to the moment.
That flexibility also means it’s less stressful when there’s a roof leak or a computer issue or an accident – those genuine unexpected obstacles that upend the workday.
One of the reasons I prefer to work remotely, rather than in an office situation, is the constant interruptions in an office situation that prevent me from doing my best work. Or even decent work. I am far more focused and productive working from my home office. I’ve rarely been in an office situation that wasn’t detrimental to the actual work. More than once, being “in the office” meant serving as the audience or an emotional punching bag for incompetent and/or narcissistic bosses, managers, or fellow employees.
It's different working in theatre and film production. Yes, there are egos involved (although not the way they’re often tropily portrayed), but you’re working toward a common goal, and you’re not there because it’s “just a job.” There are exceptions, but most people are in the business because they love it, and ALL the departments needed to put on a show or make a film are creative and necessary. You’re there as part of the creative process. In theatre, once the show starts, it runs hell bent for leather like a train without brakes until the final curtain. There are protocols in place to prevent interruptions (the stage doorman, the house staff), and if something goes wrong during the performance, the company works together to solve the problem without the audience knowing about it. Film is more about stops and starts, but it’s still a protected environment to a certain extent. Things go wrong, especially on location. But it’s a different type of interruption than happens in an office.
As a freelancer, I have to battle interruptions on two different fronts. There are those whose attitude is, “Well, you’re home, so you’re not really working. You can take in my packages/run my errands/look after my kids/let in the workmen/listen to me bitch and moan while I do real work.”
This has lessened, somewhat, since the pandemic, when so many people started working remotely and realized what it actually involved. It’s also less prevalent where I live now than in my previous location, where my work was not considered a “real” job.
The other front on which freelancers fight is the client attitude that one is available 24/7, for instant response.
Boundaries with clients are vital. As a freelancer, I am not available 24/7. Or even 9-5. I create the workday around the day’s needs. You want me instantly/always available during specific hours? You pay me a retainer for those hours (and I rarely accept those terms, even on retainer, unless it’s a very large amount of money for a limited time). An email comes in whenever it comes in; I do respond during normal business hours, out of courtesy to other people’s time. I rarely respond to client emails over weekends. I respond to genuine emergencies, but seriously, what I do? There are very few emergencies. Script doctoring while something is shooting and feeding pages to the set as they film is often an exception, but until the WGA strike is settled, that’s not happening, either.
I do phone calls ONLY by appointment. I charge for those calls, in 15-minute increments, apart from the regular project price. I loathe the phone more than any other technological invention. I’ve also found, over the years, that 99.9% of phone calls are unnecessary and can be better resolved via email. Having it in writing solves lots of problems, such as the caller denying what was said/agreed to. Even if there is a scheduled call, I follow up immediately with an email confirming what was discussed/agreed upon, and request a response. Most phone calls, at least in my work experience, are about the ego of the caller. Setting up brainstorming sessions is fine. And those have a price attached. But there’s no such thing as a “quick call” – it ALWAYS turns into free labor. Not only that, but calls ALWAYS come at a bad time, when I’m deep in the work, and it takes hours to get back on track.
In the pre-cell days, I’d either leave the machine on and screen all calls, or, when I was truly deep in the work, I’d unplug the phone. Now, I turn off my cell or put it in another room.
Other freelancers ADORE the phone, and prefer to do the bulk of their communication that way. Hey, if it works, do it. The most successful of my freelance colleagues who love the phone, however, also have strong boundaries in place so that they can actually have focused work time. They have hours where they are available by phone; otherwise, it goes to voicemail, and they check it a couple of times a day, and then return the calls within their designated call times.
Zoom (and other videoconferencing tools) have become potential interrupters, although those are all scheduled times, so it doesn’t quite break into one’s day the way the phone does. Again, I limit how many Zoom calls I book per week. If my Zoom schedule is full, the call gets booked the following week.
Some of my clients use Slack (or similar remote team production tools), and I protect myself from interruptions with Do Not Disturb during designated hours.
All of these elements are in the contract, so it’s not a surprise. Although, it amazes me how often a client is surprised when I stick to contract terms.
Creating boundaries against interruptions works because, in the designated hours for communication, I respond to messages, emails, etc. and communicate. By being reliable in the times I establish, I show that giving me that interrupted time benefits all of us.
What about interruptions on the home front?
Again, boundaries. Discussions about what is needed when and how. Discuss how to balance the needs of others in your household – parents, children, partners, roommates – with what you need to do your work. Be direct and kind, but also firm. Listen to what they need, and find something that works for all of you.
In my experience, if someone does not pay attention to my boundaries, there is something deeper and far darker going on. Not respecting my boundaries is a form of sabotage. I do not keep people in my life who sabotage me. If you don’t respect my work, on a much deeper level, you do not respect me and that is not something I can have in my life.
It, of course, is much more complicated with children, especially for a single parent/primary caregiver. I’ve worked while caring for my godchildren, at their various ages, when their parents became overwhelmed. Sometimes I had kids who didn’t really know each other until they were all dropped off with me (because their parents hadn’t coordinated – yeah, I learned how to set those boundaries, too). My periods of worktime were shorter. We communicated about what was an emergency (blood, fire, broken bones). I taught them new things to keep them occupied while I worked, so we could work companionably within the same space, but also be involved in our own projects. It wasn’t easy, but we got it done. Also, they learned to understand that if they respected the time I needed to work, I got the work done faster, and then we could go off and do fun stuff (the park, the beach, the amusement park, the Natural History Museum, etc.) It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t smooth, but we made it work. Then there was the time the parents dumped all 13 godchildren (ages ranging from teens to toddlers) on me the same week without warning or discussion. I made arrangements to have my show covered, rented one of those station wagons with wooden sides, piled everyone in and we went to Cape Cod for a week on the beach. That was in the days when one didn’t have to book a Cape rental a year in advance, and one could actually afford it. That’s a story for another day, and the premise for a dramedy.
The relationships those kids made with each other through time with me circled back around early in the pandemic, when I ran a homework group for the godchildren’s children for the first year and a half of the pandemic. It was two hours, twice a week, to give the parents a break. This second generation of kids got to know each other and built their own support group amongst themselves. It expanded to the parents (my godchildren) hanging out together virtually and getting to know each other again as adults, which gave them a support system. And some of the families got together to go camping or do other fun stuff, as restrictions started easing (they are scattered around the country).
Clear and open communication as to needs, emergencies, and concerns are vital to setting healthy boundaries that support mutual respect. Communicating as needs change is vital, because needs will change, situations change, and everyone’s needs must be met, as much as possible. There’s a difference between compromise and capitulation. Communicate, discuss, work out a plan together so no one feels pushed aside or sabotaged. Everyone’s situation is different.
One reason artist residencies are so popular is that residencies provide a protected experience for the artist. The family can’t interrupt. And there are protocols in place if a fellow artist won’t respect boundaries. Residencies are often in different spaces, so there’s also the support of being in a fresh environment away from daily pressures.
Nothing always works. But respect and communication matter, and using tools of respect and communication will help you limit interruptions and create an environment that benefits everyone.
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