Dealing with Interruptions: Recognize the Seriousness of the Problem

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    We have become not only acculturated to interruptions, but addicted to them. We have the mistaken belief that interruptions are a perfectly normal way of life, despite knowing deep down that “time is a precious commodity that we cannot afford to waste.”

    Therein lies the essential message of Edward Brown, founder and president of Cohen Brown Management Group, a culture change and time management consulting and training firm in Los Angeles. But at least he’s trying to do something about it. He’s the author of The Time Bandit Solution: Recovering Stolen Time You Never Knew You Had,” and he feels strongly enough about the issue to take time out for an in-depth email interview on the topic.

    I learned a lot from that interview about the extent to which we allow ourselves to be interrupted, and the price we pay as a result. To set the stage for the discussion, Brown pointed out that there are two key types of interruptions that we tolerate: those coming from other people, and those coming from our devices. He said other people are inveterate time bandits, and the fact that their intent is innocent doesn’t matter:

    It’s still an interruption that is much more destructive than most people consciously realize. The boss, a colleague, a customer—it’s usually somebody who has legitimate business with you. So when they start out with that, ‘Got a minute?’ people are accustomed to politely permitting the interruption. The open floor plan, so much in vogue today, no doubt well serves its intended purposes of better collaboration and lower costs. But who doubts that it makes it harder for people to concentrate?

    Our devices, meanwhile, are another category of increasingly insistent interruptions:

    I had no trouble believing the results of a study from the University of Southern Maine. They found that just the sight of your mobile phone can distract you, even if you are not using it. When asked to complete a complicated task, those who put it in their pocket or their bag scored on average 20 percent higher in the test because they were more focused! … I defy anybody to turn to the Internet to look up something, find it, and return straight to the business at hand, without taking at least one detour to look at something else that popped up unbidden, demanding attention and diverting the most single-minded worker. It almost makes you pine for the old days when preventing interruptions just meant closing the door and turning off the phone.

    Brown had a lot to say about time banditry in the IT profession, having spent nine years as chief consultant to Robert P. Rittereiser, executive vice president of operations at Merrill Lynch, who oversaw IT. He described a “workspace alleviation” Merrill Lynch was encountering at the time:

    Communication between systems designers and the systems applications group, in combination with the backroom of the retail outlets, began to go into a form of internecine warfare caused by a lack of quality control. This continued until we formed quality control circles and developed parallels, in combination with ‘time locking’ (allowing for no interruptions other than emergencies) and ‘focal locking’ (bearing down and retaining focus), to produce qualitatively superior outputs of systems design for the right reason, and with full cooperation with the systems application group—that is, the test pilots of new designs. At the end of this experience, we were able to convert Merrill Lynch’s space at One Liberty Plaza [in New York], the center of all operations, into 14 regional operation centers. The quality of IT output was only matched by the increase in job satisfaction and morale, and a reduction of distress that Merrill Lynch to this day is very proud of.

    Brown went on to say that the IT professionals in his classrooms have really been no different from any other workers:

    Like the others, they fear deterring their time bandits because they don’t know how to do it properly—that is, how to get good results for both parties and maintain a positive relationship. Like the others, they need to learn what to say, how to say it. They need to practice it, and they need to do it. I have observed that many IT professionals share traits that I observed in my clients from my earlier career as manager of creative people—writers, artists, songwriters, etc. They often manifest a need to work in uninterrupted environments for long stretches of time—in effect, burying themselves in their work. At least, they do when the muse visits—when they are on a roll. When that happens, they can tune out a lot of distractions. But until then, they suffer distractions poorly. If I managed a team of IT professionals, I’d be very careful to provide them an environment that helped them get into productive mode.

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    Brown also pointed out that the tendency among IT pros to look for a technology solution to the problem can be an issue:

    Sometimes when I make converts about the interruption culture—when managers realize that interruptions are ruining their team’s productivity—I’ll see them start casting about for technology solutions to the problem. ‘Let’s install an app that prevents people from…’ I get the attraction—how much easier it would be if we didn’t have to learn new skills to control our own time; how nice it would be to outsource the problem to an app. I tell them, ‘Look, this is a skill you can use for the rest of your life in all situations. You are always going to need to know how to use your time most wisely. Even if the app works at the office, are you going to spring it on your spouse?’ Certainly, an app can help communicate to your time bandits, but it can’t replace the skill of negotiating with them.

    I asked Brown whether interruptions are more or less of a problem among employees who work from home, compared to employees who work in the office. He said not surprisingly, it depends on the individual and the home environment:

    If you are good at self-motivating and organizing your time, you’ll do that as well at home as you would at the office. For some people, the home environment is quiet and controlled, but we are all familiar with the other kind from some of our conference calls—dogs barking, doorbell ringing, kids calling. So it’s hard to be categorical about which environment is less interruptive. But here’s what I’d say regardless: Whatever environment your people are in, they need the skills and tools for working productively in that environment. If you have an IT professional who has to work from home but who thrives on ready engagement with colleagues, you need to provide the skills and tools for that. If you have people who need to concentrate, and they have to work in a busy open environment, they need the skills and tools for doing so. A growing skill for managers will be the ability to discern what their various employees thrive on, and what undermines their productivity. It’s too easy to stereotype certain groups of employees, create the same environment for all of them, and leave some percentage of them desperately unable to perform, despite their best efforts.

    Brown also shared some enlightening insights about the cost of time banditry, false assumptions about the issue, and what companies can do to help alleviate the problem. I’ll cover those in a forthcoming post.

    A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.

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