the beauty of allowing others to interrupt your very important work

Posted on February 29th, 2012

This is a behaviour in myself I really wish wasn’t part of my makeup: friends call or drop in or write to ask if they can come stay and sometimes, not always, but way too often, I get…antsy. I feel they’re going to break my stride, stop me from achieving things.

Photo by Rachel de Joode

On the phone I’m too often distracted. When they drop in it takes me a good 15 minutes and some internal self-talk to be cool. And when I have someone coming to stay I have to talk myself down from a mild panic. This is partly borne from working for myself from home – my parameters are very loose and loved ones can forget that my lounge and kitchen is my office and that at 10am, when they want me to hang on the beach with them when they come visit, I’m meant to be at work.

I get irritated. I want the world to just go away in that moment.

I know not all of you work in the same manner, so you might not empathise. But maybe you do. Because you might find personal calls at work distracting. Or impromptu weekend drop-ins annoying when you’re in the middle of a project. Or when you’re stressed, visitors might tax your tolerance quotient. You issue impatient, “Yep, yep, yeps” as they talk.

If you do, you might find comfort in some ideas I came across.

Recently I read Trust the Process by Shaun McNiff, which is seriously a great book for anyone who gets writer’s block or struggles to access their creativity. He writes that

Picasso welcomed visitors to his studio because they recharged his creative energies.

It was these distractions that provided his inspiration for the day. His muses were people who popped by on that day.

Then Stephen King in On Writing said this:

In truth, I’ve found that any day’s routine interruptions and distractions don’t much hurt a work in progress and may actually help it in some ways.

It is, after all, the dab of grit that seeps into an oyster’s shell that makes the pearl…

Yes, the grit that becomes the pearl. Irritations, in my experience, always serve a purpose. They’re the abrasive traction from which to launch something, even if just a moment of awareness.

If everything in life was smooth we’d be slip-sliding around, unable to get run-up or bounce-off or a pivot point.

Don’t you think?

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  • http://www.sewindigo.blogspot.com Suellen

    Interesting – I feel the same. I love to see people then get very restless when I need to get back to whatever I was doing. So, yes, it’s good to pause, take a breath – my project will still be there and I’ll be better for the break.

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  • Patricia

    Seems to be too much analyzing of something so simple as wanting and liking ones own space and company. Simple. That you’re working is more understandable. Stop trying to change what you are feeling. Why?? For goodness sake there is not one thing wrong with not wanting company, talking etc..

    If one is not happy in their own company and it is causing them issues, then sure change it. But change it for yourself and no one else. If one is conent being solitary and enjoying their own company , then don’t change it. I believe more unsettling issues will created by changing and messing with what you are already happy being.

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    Sarah Wilson

    Sarah WilsonSarah Wilson Reply:

    except we live in a world where we WILL be interrupted!

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  • http://www.adamcordner.com Adam Cordner

    I’m horribly focused and in my head alot, like a coyote head deep in a carcass, if you get close to me you’re getting bitten. But my friends and family know that now.

    I think it’s nice to have an interruption, but you could change the behaviour of those who interrupt by biting them.

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  • Cherie

    I completely get this feeling too Sarah. I really need to have a chat with myself, when there’s a disruption or change to routine – especially when I am deep in work – and let myself enjoy it. One of my new year’s resolutions was to be a more active listener on the phone! There’ll always be time to catch up on work (that’s what I have to keep telling myself) and life’s too short to choose work over people.
    I have given myself Thursdays off this year to allow myself to have a bit of time out from the hustle. I am much better for it.

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  • Patricia

    Further to my above comment. I do understand that you were really refering to when knee deep in work or on a project. Or when feeling stressed, glum or whatever.
    But my answer is still the same. Do what you feel. :)

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  • Liza

    Sarah, you come across as a straight shooter so why not just be honest with your friends. I have friends from interstate who often ask if they can come and stay. If it suits me fine. Otherwise I am upfront with them but always make the time to catch up for a meal or a coffee. No hassles from either side.

    However, if they read this blog they might get the message loud and clear!

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  • Christa

    I hear you Sarah, this is one of my life’s biggest stress points. I have worked from home for 8 years, and have the pleasure (and the pain) of living on the east coast route that alot of people take on their holidays, stopping in to stay and play, all while I try to work.
    Being creative and calm, at the same time as catering to their needs is exhausting.
    To the point that even the phone call that they are coming sends my mind into meltdown and I stay rattled for days (before they even arrive)…..

    Good to know I am not alone.

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  • Anna

    Why not set some boundries for yourself? If you don’t want distractions when you’re working simply turn off your phone or don’t answer calls. If people turn up unannounced, don’t invite them in. Explain that you’re actually working and have deadlines to meet. Rather than feel guilty for turning them away, suggest a time that would work for you. Same when people invite themselves to stay. Be tough. And perhaps have a list of accommodation places nearby they could try.

    I worked from home for many years and had similar issues. It was only by trial and error that I found a win/win situation. And the best part was people were very understanding.

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    judy marrone Reply:

    You’ve said exactly what I was thinking Anna. I often don’t answer the phone (that’s why we have message bank, right?) and I have a ”Do not disturb’ sign that I put up if I have a client (I work at home as a massage therapist). Also, my friends now know that I don’t appreciate an unplanned visit. I think it’s so rude to just arrive at someone’s home and expect them to drop what they’re doing to entertain you, or risk embarrasing them if they’re having a lazy ‘no makeup, daggy trackies’ sort of day.

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  • http://oneaprilmorning.net Laura

    I love this, thanks Sarah.

    Me, I welcome the distraction but then use it as a bitter excuse for my broken deadline. I guess the better approach is to embrace it, but don’t let it take away from the work. Use it to fuel the momentum, not stop or slow it.

    I think it’s like (warning: bad analogy coming) when we are given bad/unsuitable presents at Christmastime… we can choose to hate them & shove them in a cupboard, or we can integrate them into our lives. Some of my most stridently unwanted gifts have become my most treasured items further down the track.

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    Sarah Wilson

    Sarah WilsonSarah Wilson Reply:

    It’s about owning the situation in a balanced way, I reckon.

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  • Anthony

    I really admire people who are very creative in a busy, chaotic environment. They can deal with all the interruptions then sneak of to their parlor and continue on with missing a beat. I have a small business, an investment company and work from home, and I get very wound up in what I’m doing, the risk involved in finance is so great that I just want to be left alone for long periods of time to ensure I get the best results possible, but once that period is over I enjoy company. I have just not found how to ameliorate the two.

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  • tracy

    Are you comfortable with negotiating? For example “Yes, I’d love to ….(whatever the situation is) but can we postpone it until…(insert time here) as I really have to get this work done.” I use this at my work, where everyone’s needs are immediate (apparently) and THE most important thing for me to tend to. This technique also gives me the space to think, instead of answering immediately, as we so often blurt out “yes” ’cause we can find “no” so hard to say…

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  • Jan

    Sarah, I’m sure your friends wouldn’t be hitting you up for accommodation if at some stage you haven’t said to them ‘come up and stay with me’, or ‘feel free to drop in anytime’. There are people who take these words literally. I would never be so forward to ask someone for a bed unless they hadn’t invited me and I knew for certain I wasn’t putting them out. Perhaps be careful of what you say to people from now on. Only you can end this behavior if it causes you such angst.

    What happens when you travel – do you crash at friends houses and perhaps disrupt their routine if they also work from home? Has anyone ever denied you accommodation or a catch up? Were you offended?

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    Sarah Wilson

    Sarah WilsonSarah Wilson Reply:

    Jan, my friends are far less impatient, more tolerant and Zen people than I am…mercifully.

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    Fiona Reply:

    Sarah, I notice you never seem to answer a question directly. Whether it be in an interview or on this blog, you somehow avoid the questions being asked and tend to go off on a tangent. Perhaps have a listen to one of your interview to see what I mean. I can’t begin to tell you the number of times I have lost track of the original question.

    For example, Jan asked if you crash with friends when you travel. Yes or no?? Have your friends ever denied you a bed or catch up. Yes or no?? Were you offended. Yes or no?? What does telling us that your friends are far less impatient and zen like have to do with the questions?

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    Jenny Reply:

    Fiona, are you putting Sarah on trial?? lol are you a lawyer?? lol omg :) sometimes you just need to read between the lines is all… next question pls? LOl

  • Naz

    I’m like this sometimes… but I am able to adapt if need be. I prefer my own company and don’t much like unexpected guests or If I’m in the middle of something and get a phone call all I can think about is what I was doing before hand. BUT, growing up my mum was the complete opposite and loved when people dropped by unannounced, which was quiet often and even as a kid I felt anxious about people coming by like that, but I got used to it ,didn’t particularly like it but as I said I learnt to adapt. And then I met my husband who is even worse than me! He loves just being on his own and HATES the unexpected and has a hard time adapting. I find myself being the one to tell him to welcome the distraction, even if it is messing with routine which is something he definitely loves.

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  • Liza

    Sounds like you want the best of both worlds! And do you know what it is you want cause I couldn’t make heads or tails of your conclusion.

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  • lizzie

    I am so with you on this one! I’ve worked from home for most of my career and find that because I’m at ‘home’, I am considered accessible in ways that others who go to an office or place of work, are not. Now that I’ve moved from the UK to Australia, the press has been even greater, with friends visiting and expecting to be entertained, sometimes for weeks on end. I always find the whole thing extremely stressful and its actually set me back.

    I’ve found that a couple of things work for me. Firstly, if I don’t answer social telephone calls during my working hours. Secondly, when I was in the UK, I got together with a group of others in similar situations – all doing different jobs but from home. We found and rented an office together. This gave us an official place to go to during working hours, as well as the social and support aspects of working together, in a much cheaper way than having our own spaces. Because we were all ‘at work’, we all felt able to say that we were head down on something and the others would give us the space to be so. I actually found that I was far more productive too. I’m about to do a similar thing here in Sydney.

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  • http://www.rebeccacopley.com.au Rebecca

    As someone who writes around the timetable of a feisty toddler, I’ve kinda gotten used to working this distractions & interuptions. I can empathise though – there’s nothing worse than hitting my stride just as nap time comes to an end. Thankfully for me, the distraction is pretty awesome & whatever annoyance I feel at being interrupted is short-lived.

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  • Lisa Ingram

    For me it is about the definition of ‘friends’. I have now, 9 people I can stand to have drop in. I have known them for 20 years. Everyone else, oh dear, still not sure can you ring first. I worry this is something others judge. But it is…well… me. I work at an office but my home is precious. Lisa PS Adam Cordner is of course excused. Never met but must stalk on the net.

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  • Patricia

    I understand what you are saying.

    Maybe just put it out there to one and all, that you would prefer people to phone before calling in, as you may be extremely busy and may not be able to give them the time that you would like, and it may not be convenient to you.

    Mention to everyone in general conversation that you have had to impose some new rules as you work from home. Do this even before they offer to call in on their way through or whatever That way they know if they do call in announced, they are aware there is the chance they may get a polite short-shift or not much conversation
    happening. Then you will feel less obligated.

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  • Tash

    pfft…tell them to bugger off. Bloody freeloaders.

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    Patricia Reply:

    Ha ha that is hilarious. You tell em!!

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    Patricia Reply:

    Here is me saying all this composed conservative treading on egg shells approach.

    Then your tell it as you see it.

    Love it!!!

    So funny.

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  • Patricia

    Here’s me saying all this composed conservative treading on egg shells approach.

    Then your tell it as you see it.

    Love it!!!

    So funny.

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  • http://www.quietmind.com.au Sarah

    Oh! Were you here in my life today? When my good friend arrived and I totally blocked her entrance. I have carried the guilt all day. I apologised later via text. But really. When you are running your own show from a small desk hidden amongst the ‘stuff’ of family life, and there are school timetables and teenage social calendars and the maid is off for a week (joke, if only!) .. then I CANT STOP. and I dont want to. when finally I feel ‘in the flow’ and the powers-that-be are fuelling my to do list tick off’s .. I don’t want to share this limited moment in time. I love you friend but can we talk later. then I can really be present with you. Its a form of tough love. and setting boundaries. Phew. SO pleased you opened up this line of thought. Ive been carrying this guilt all day. :)

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  • Natalie

    I used to work in a PR agency and in one of my performance reviews my boss said, “sometimes when I come into your office you look at me like you wish I wasn’t interrupting you.” I replied, “that’s because that’s how I feel.”

    I love working for myself now because I love to get stuck into my work and for the scarce, precious time I actually have out of my busy day to concentrate on a task, I don’t want anyone to encroach on that.

    But, I agree whole-heartedly that we should be open to interruptions and try our best to take a deep breath and get over it. Our work will get done eventually and we probably will be more invigorated by the extra social interaction.

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  • AmyD

    This is ME! I work from home also and I can’t stand interruptions – or people who just drop in because they are bored and looking for some entertainment. I definitely appreciate my own company, and to be honest, I could go many, many days without seeking out friends. My friends (after six years of working from home) are starting to understand (reluctantly, it still annoys them, and they don’t ‘get’ it) but I have had to be honest.
    My sister on the other hand…feels that the rules for everyone else don’t apply to her! She doesn’t work and has zero respect for what I do. I feel guilty if I don’t answer her calls or texts and no way could I block her at the door. Still trying to work out how to tackle that one. I’d love to think the drop in offers inspiration, but it doesn’t. It breaks my flow!

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  • http://jeweldivas.com.au Jewel Divas

    I completely agree! You just get into a rhythm and get in sync with your life and all of a sudden people drop in and think you will just drop everything for them! It’s rude, it’s disrespectful and just annoying. And you lose valuable time you could be spending on something worthwhile or useful just to entertain idiots who want to waste your time.

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  • http://www.pattykikos.com Patty

    oh dear i can really relate to this one. not only do i work for myself at home, i have also inherited my mothers OCD tendencies.

    when friends come to stay i try to brief them as best i can about how ‘i like my place to be’.. the only problem is (just like my mum) nobody cleans up after themselves as thoroughly as i do so i often end up paraphrasing my sentences with “would you mind not..”

    i also see how much i tend to be in my own head about so many things and how much more personal space i get to have compared to most people. its taught me to set better boundaries with my friends when they start telling me about their day and i’m not really in a headspace to listen. the phrase “it sounds great, and i’d love to hear more about it when i’m not in work mode”

    another thing that i’ve discovered is how much i hate others using my computer. i try to switch it off by a certain time each night so that i dont get over stimulated and overseas friends have a penchant for uploading pics on facebook and responding to comments when all i want to do is unwind with a good book.

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  • http://www.laceandfadedjeans.com/ Jess

    Check out my latest post on being bullied and bullying…I invite you and everyone else to comment and share your stories. kisses!

    http://www.laceandfadedjeans.com/?p=3837

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  • http://mrmathew1963.blogspot.com Mathew

    When working as a carpenter/joiner; no interruptions please.

    When working on the computer at home especially when I’m writing something up as I can loose inspiration & insight; no interruptions please.

    When watching a good movie; interrupt but quietly.

    When I’m having a drink; interrupt as much as you like.

    It really depends on the circumstances & the people coming to interrupt me so what will be will be…..Love Mathew

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  • michael

    Can totally relate ..
    So much of this sort of stuff hinges on who we really are .. rather than how we present.
    Not so sure about the Picasso analogy though because I’m fairly sure when people came to visit him it was VERY MUCH on his terms.
    I also think that sometimes irritations (whether they be people or things) are just .. well .. irritations.

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  • Selena

    I can completely relate to this. When things are stressful or I’m really busy, I just like to be in my own company. Some people may find this strange because I am a classic extrovert on most personality scales. There were a few stressful things all happening at once in different sectors of my life around Christmas time and it was really difficult having my family stay with me. I love them to bits, but it was trying.
    I am about embark on studing (psychology honours) while working a FT Management role. I have opted to continue to live on my own during this period. I figure I’ll need the focus and lack of distractions. This comes at a time when some really bubbly great friends are wanting to come and stay with me for extended periods of time, but I decided to be honest; I figure it’s the fairest and best thing to do for me and them :)

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  • http://www.rachaelphillips.net Rachael

    TOTALLY get where you’re coming from with this. I work from home and seem to think I’m either unemployed or just hanging around. It drives me utterly mental.

    I have terrible problem with the neighbours thinking I’m their parcel collect point.

    Some family members have this really annoying thing of phoning and saying “so what are you doing today” and every time its “well it’s a Monday morning, I’m working”.

    My boyfriend doesn’t get working from home AT ALL he thinks I just lie around watching Jeremy Kyle and eating crisps.

    I get easily distracted all the time. If I’m in the middle of an article I can quite easily drift off and get my mind stuck in to something else (you post a while back about “scanners” < that) and the same goes for if someone sends me an email/calls/calls by.

    I can't say no, I usually say "well, i'm working but" and I know that's something I need to work on, I need to just say NO! But I think another thing that has to be taken in to consideration is the type of work we do at home. I'm a journalist and writer, my hours are regular 9-5 and if I have deadlines then I have to work late or if something interesting comes in I can't just turn off at 5pm and say "see ya". Friends who work in offices etc just don't get that.

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  • D.

    I love this idea, especially because I can totally relate to your antsy-ness. For me, when I’m not at school, my work place is my room. And then my parents come home from work in the afternoon and barge in. And then my sister comes. I think these ideas will keep me calm.

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  • http://www.bestofthislife.com Emily Lynne {The Best of this Life}

    Huh? So, I guess I shouldn’t kick my hubby out when he wants to give me a kiss while I’m working? Loved reading this, because it reminded me to enjoy the process and welcome the little breaks.

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  • http://www.foodiecure.com.au Becki

    I think the key is to reamin flexible. When I’ve worked from home I’ve tried to keep office hours, which don’t necessarily coincide with my best work. The beauty of working from home IS flexibility.

    So rolling with the flow, then when the time is right to pump out that article, report etc the universe will support you. I’ve found that I’m so pumped up on adrenalin I’m not as snappy. I can make that call eaiser to say no. And I power through the work. Maybe the universe sends us distractions as a sign that we can do with a little distraction because the time isn’t quite right, but it’s coming. It might jsut strike you at 9pm, but dang, you will pump out some fabulous work!

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  • Lauren

    all these people commenting… beginning with “i understand what you are saying, Sarah” and then having a crack at Sarah for not being forward/upfront with her friends, for inviting them in the first place, for over analysing… for complaining…

    Take 5 seconds to re-read her post, or actually read it all the way through before you comment… if you really did understand what she was saying, raising, discussing… you wouldn’t waste your time posting with your knickers in a knot.

    (I was interupted 4 times while typing these 2 sentences – laughed 3 times, grizzled once)

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    Heather Reply:

    Finally! Someone who understands what is Sarah is trying to say! Haha :-)

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  • http://www.kristinemiles.com Kristine

    I agree with the nature of this post and also find interruptions a nuisance, but its ironic that we will choose to procrastinate yet get annoyed at others cramping our style :))

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  • Ms Jane

    I always invite people over and then spend the days leading up to it in mild panic!! However I’ve realised that when eventually the time arrives I nearly always enjoy it and like Picasso feel invigorated by the visit. So I’ve learnt just to try and ignore all the crap going around in my head and to go with the flow…

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  • Anthony

    To add to my comment above, and I have to remind myself of this point, that we often take for granted the contribution others make to our lives. Sure, we may see a visit from a friend as an unwanted intrusion when we are trying to tie-up an important project, but the real issue here is, taking the time or making time for others and work. If we don’t, they wont come or wont be there when you would really like them to, and you will be alone. As my father said more than once when I was steaming along with work and no woman in sight in my life. Life is no fun without others. He was so right. It’s all about balance.

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  • Tijana

    Funny… I used to be like that. But somehow it’s disappeared… and the calmness and receptiveness to these friendly disruptions has also moved over to my work – im at ease with what i’m writing, no longer so strained in trying to get it exactly right. i no longer see the sitting down to write process so structured and precise, which makes it more enjoyable to do and come back to and fit around the other parts of life without being such an effort. :)

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  • seeker

    “There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in”, Leonard Cohen.
    This came to mind when I read your post. I can’t stop revelling in how much I get from that one line!!

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    michael Reply:

    Nice !!

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  • Miss Jodi

    Agree. Awesome quote. Write in my diary today. Never heard this one before

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