The Cardinal Rule of Rules

I was in my home office, on the phone with a new client, when I heard a knock on the door. I looked at my watch: it was 4pm, the time my daughters Isabelle and Sophia come home from school. Generally I love taking a break at this time and hearing about their day.

But, I have a rule: if the door to my office is closed, they have to knock once. If I answer, they can come in. If I’m silent, it means I don’t want to be disturbed and they have to wait until I come out.

Well, this time, not wanting my call to be unprofessionally interrupted, I remained silent. But they kept knocking and, eventually, just walked in. I was stunned! What about my rule? I signaled for them to be silent but let them stay in the room until the call was over.

After my phone call, I asked them why they had disobeyed my rule.

“But Daddy,” Isabelle said, “you like when we just come in. We did it yesterday and the day before and you didn’t say no.”

I had broken the cardinal rule of rules: never break a rule.

I should know better. Just a few days earlier, after a speech I had given about time management to the top leaders of a large pharmaceutical company, one leader (we’ll call him Sean) approached me with a question. How could he stop his secretary from interrupting him?

“I’ll have the door shut and Brahms playing on the stereo — I mean, how much more obvious can I be? — and she’ll walk in and ask me a question. It doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it’s a distraction and it throws me off. I tell her not to, but she does it anyway”

Sean is already ahead of the game. He realizes something most of us miss: it’s hard to recover from an interruption. In a study conducted by Microsoft Corporation, researchers taped 29 hours of people working and found that, on average, they were interrupted four times per hour. That’s not surprising.

But there’s more and this part is surprising: 40% of the time they did not resume the task they were working on before they were disrupted. And it gets worse: the more complex the task, the less likely the person was to return to it.

That means we are most often derailed from completing our most important work.

“So,” I asked Sean, “what do you say when she interrupts you?”

“I remind her that I told her I didn’t want to be disturbed.”

“Great. Then?”

“Then she tells me it will just take a second and asks me a question or talks to me about an issue.”


“Well, I already stopped doing what I was doing before and I don’t want to seem mean or rude, so I give her what she needs and then ask her not to disturb me again.”

That’s Sean’s mistake. And mine. And perhaps, if you find that people don’t always do what you ask, yours too. We like being liked. We’re too nice. We don’t want to appear rude.

Unfortunately, it’s a bad strategy. Because setting a rule and then letting people break it doesn’t make them like you, it just makes them ignore you.

If Sean wants his secretary to listen to him, he needs to be consistent; no exceptions. On the other hand, he also needs to understand why she’s constantly disturbing him. Sean travels and is often out of his office so his secretary is never sure when she will have the opportunity to connect with him. But when he’s in the office, she knows she can reach him. She’s not being obnoxious. On the contrary, she’s being diligent.

To solve his problem and stop the interruptions, Sean needs to do two things:

  1. Set a regular appointment — that he does not cancel — to meet with his secretary to address any questions or open issues.
  2. When she does interrupt him (and she will) he needs to look at her without smiling and tell her that whatever it is, it needs to wait until their appointed time.

“And if it’s a short question? Like: what time is your lunch appointment today?” Sean challenged me.

“I know it’s hard. Silly even. But do not answer her. Just tell her you cannot be disturbed and let the silence sit there. If you want her to respect the rule she needs to see that you won’t break it. Even if, maybe, in that situation, it makes sense to break it. It’s a slippery slope.”

As Sean listened to me he shuddered slightly at the thought. “That will be very uncomfortable,” he finally said.

“That’s the point,” I told him, “You want it to feel uncomfortable. You want her to feel uncomfortable. That’s what will prevent her from interrupting you again.”

Later, if he wants, he can explain that his work requires total concentration and even a small interruption will cause him to lose his train of thought. But not at the time. Because an explanation at the time will reduce the discomfort.

Think of it this way: ultimately, people feel safer knowing what the boundaries are. It may seem harsh at the time, but in the long run it reduces their stress and uncertainty. People prefer to know where they stand.

“You’re right,” I told Isabelle after she called me on my inconsistency, “It’s hard not to break my own rule because I love seeing you guys so much. But the rule really is important and I can’t break it again.”

The next day I was working on the computer when, as expected, Isabelle and Sophia knocked and then walked in without waiting for my response.

I turned to look at them. “Out,” I said.

“But Daddy . . .”

“Out.” I repeated.

“But, we just . . .”

“Out.” I said once more, feeling like a jerk. I wanted to see them. I even worried for a second that they really needed me. What if one of them was hurt? What if there was a fire in the kitchen? But I didn’t look up. My wife was home. If there was a fire, she would put it out.

A few days later they tried again but I didn’t waiver. And they haven’t broken the rule since.