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Not All Interruptions Are Bad

Last Saturday I published a rant on The Cost of Distraction.  Maybe it’s that I’m getting older and I can’t multi-task the way a 12 year old can, but I just need my creative time. I can’t produce quality work without being able to shut the world out. 

In any case, a number of prominent people disagreed with my assertion that the always-on workplace is a disempowering place.

Don Thorson says he likes the immediacy of contact, and writes:

staying in immediate contact with friends, family and colleagues is the thread that brings context to it all. We are a social animal. (Someone once told me that the only reason we invented work was so we’d have an excuse to get together).  We are tribal by nature. We run in packs. To me, these numbers are a reflection of the coming together of a global pack, a large unified earth-sized tribe.

Burton Group’s Mike Gotta comments that he thinks the issue is more complex than “interruptions are bad”, and most of us rely on social contracts when making those decisions.  Craig Roth also comments, quoting from interruptions.net, that not all interruptions are bad.  Meanwhile Ted Wallingford, firmly in my camp, lends a hearty “hear hear” to the observation that the carriers have no incentive to reduce usage. 

One of the casualties of the last 25 years has been the social compact governing when it is acceptable to interrupt, and when not.  125 years ago, before the telephone, if a gentleman wanted to meet another gentleman, he’d send his man around with a calling card to invite the other to meet.  It was the presence of its day.  It’s a metaphor that we really need to examine carefully, because there’s much to be learned that is applicable now.  First, it’s completely individual.  Whether I choose to meet with Mike, but not Ted, is completely dependent on the circumstances and context the requestor and requested parties find themselves in.  Second, the decision making process is completely private.  Unlike presence today (“Hey, I can see he’s online, but he’s not answering my ping! Ignorant b*stard!”), the decision making process was completely opaque to the caller. 

Progress erased the calling card. By 50 years ago it was a “very” formal relic of the past. Instead of the embodying the social contract in a calling card, the embodiment of the day was the personal assistant, working on an old underwood typewriter, answering telephones on and paging the boss on the intercom.  25 years ago even that began to be replaced totally by telephone calls, as voice mail systems and PBX’s replaced the receptions. Today… well, today you just IM or call anyone you please, and people do.  Ask anyone who’s every used Skype!!  Written invitations are for weddings and not much else.

The fundamental problem is that presence does not model the social contract between individuals. It doesn’t model my man talking to yours to determine whether we should meet.  It models awareness of the physical device that the user is reachable on, and nothing more. 

Mike and Craig, it’s not that I want to be un-interruptable.  I recognize that some interruptions have value.  However, what I want is some knowledge of the context of the interruption, so I can make intelligent decisions about whether to take it.  Perhaps the solution is, as Jean-Louis Seguineau suggests, systems that will allow us to make more polite decisions about when to interrupt. 

And Don… the honeymoon phase doesn’t last forever, my friend!  Enjoy it while you can.

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