Wednesday, June 20, 2020

Interruptions and choice

Taking away people's freedom of choice through constant, compulsory interruptions is a poor strategy.

It’s the demands from others to meet their schedules that really messes up your day. And yes, sometimes you have no option save to go along. But what makes the most difference in the “frustration power” of these interruptions is denial of choice. If you can choose what to pay attention to and when to do it—focusing for as long as you need to and taking a break some other time to catch up on all the rest—most interruptions aren’t much of a problem. Unless, of course, your boss is a total jerk and wastes most of your time with pointless deamnds to pay attention to him.
We all know that continual distractions are bad for concentration and increase stress. What makes them even more frustrating is when you are denied the option to ignore them. When someone—the boss, an insensitive colleague, a boorish customer—grabs your attention and refuses to let go.

There is nothing worse than being deeply immersed in a piece of work—right in the “flow”—when somebody or something comes along and demands your attention—now!—completely distracting you. “This won’t take a moment,” they say. Of course, it takes far more than a moment. And by the time you get back to the piece of work that you were doing, you’ve lost your place, you’ve lost your flow, and it takes you maybe an hour or more to get back into the swing of things—if you ever do.

When someone’s days are so fragmented with meetings, e-mails, telephone calls, and other interruptions that they never have the time to get anything useful completed, it’s bound to cause them frustration and stress. It’s a rare person who doesn’t get angry. After all, you have your own work to do—important work that others will judge you on—and important work takes time and concentration.

If your time is broken up into little pieces and sandwiched between other activities, especially those that you cannot choose to reschedule or set aside, it’s made next to useless. It’s not just the total amount of time that matters (though that is important enough), it’s the amount of continuous, uninterrupted time that makes all the difference between feeling happy and satisfied with what you have done, and feeling frustrated, uncertain, and embarrassed over a job that you’ve thrown together in what few moments were left to you after everyone else had had their demands met.

Creativity is virtually impossible under such conditions. If you’re interrupted and distracted right at the moment when some truly important idea has just occurred to you, there’s the strong possibility that you will forget it well before you can write it down or capture the thought some other way. Research has proved that the single, most significant difference between people noted for their creativity and the rest of us is that the creative ones always note their ideas down straightaway . . . if they are allowed the time.

It’s hard to understand why organizations cannot see how counterproductive and morale-sapping it is to force people to work like this. Maybe it’s because of today’s unprecedented ease of communication that the expectation has grown that, because you can contact someone virtually instantly, they should deal with whatever you want instantly as well. No time for thought. No ability to set time aside, free of interruptions, to complete important tasks. No freedom to schedule their own work. And it’s bosses—the very ones who claim to be most concerned about driving up productivity—who are nearly always the very worst offenders, driving productivity down again and again by interrupting their subordinates or dragging them away to pointless meetings.

If you want an easy way to increase productivity for everyone, declare war on interruptions of every kind. Make it a capital offense to schedule more than one meeting during the day. Make sure no meeting lasts for a minute more than two hours. Urge everyone to establish set times for sending and reading e-mails. Ban lengthy circulation lists and outlaw the practice of cc-ing the whole organization on every e-mail. Then make it abundantly clear that anyone who sets aside important work simply to deal with an interruption (unless it’s a matter of life and death) is guilty of significant time wasting and will be dealt with accordingly. Most of the things that interrupt you at work are neither urgent nor important. They should be ignored. Most of the important ones are not urgent, so you should set them aside until a more convenient time. If you only do that, it will totally transform your day.

And, as the drawing at the head of this article shows, an essential element of being a free agent is the power to make your own choices most of the time. If that power of choice is denied, most people find it extremely stressful—likely intolerable for any long period. It reduces you to the status of a slave: a person of no account who must jump to deal with his or her master’s slightest whim. Being a wage slave is still being a slave. It diminishes you as a human being and destroys your dignity as a person with your own responsibilities and choices to make.

Your freedom to exercise the power of choice in scheduling your work, giving the most attention to what needs it most, is too important to lose. Demanding that others drop whatever they are doing to pay attention to you—even if you are the boss—is selfish, childish, and unprofessional. Those who do it merely show the world what jerks they are. Make sure that you are never one of them.

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Shannon said...

I had to institute telecommute days to get my focused work done without interruption. I pretty much assume that when I go into the office, I won't be productive, and set aside those days for meetings, checking in with people and other similar activities. It works well for me but then my organization does grant me the freedom to manage my work this way.

On those weeks when I can't take a telecommute day for some reason or another, I am very stressed out by the end of the week!

2:07 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks for sharing your experience like this, Shannon.

I guess many people will have similar stories about how they manage to cope with today's mania for interrupting others. Let's hope that they share them too.

Keep reading, my friend.

2:31 PM  
Andy said...

You have hit the nail right on the head here.

I could never work out why I was stressed from the constant interuptions of my boss, and now I get it - fantastic - keep up the good work.

6:19 PM  
Andy said...

You have hit the nail right on the head here.

I could never work out why I was stressed from the constant interuptions of my boss, and now I get it - fantastic - keep up the good work.

6:20 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks, Andy.

I'm glad that you found this article helped you.

Keep reading, my friend.

6:27 PM  
Marie said...

True. It's even frustrating, indeed. I have experienced that same situation a number of times and it made me aware of the distractions that unexpectedly interrupt work. So I make sure that it's safe by working out a plan before doing it.

9:02 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks for your comment, Marie.

You've obviously found a coping strategy that works well for you. Thank you for sharing it.

Keep reading, my friend.

9:27 PM  
Irene said...

Like Marie, I also make a plan in doing work, especially the important ones which really needs attention. My plan is to write every ideas and strategies and save them every time so that when interruptions occur, I can still get back to work without the problem.

7:26 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks for your comment, Marie.

I think that making a note of things, especially creative ideas and insights, is very important. They are so fleeting and easily lost that trusting them to memory is a poor strategy.

Keep reading, my friend.

10:21 PM  

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