I’m a Conscientious Objector in the War on Interruptions

August 4, 2008 at 1:28 pm | Posted in Attention Management, interruption science | 3 Comments

There is a lot of conversation about information stress and overload that I can fully get behind, but sometimes it’s taken in a direction that can be counterproductive.  First some things I do agree with:

People feeling deluged by the increasing amount of email, blogs, websites, etc. would generally benefit from stepping back and thinking hard about what they are doing and come up with processes and systems (personal attention management) to deal with it?


The amount of information and the number of channels it is used to launch at people are on a hyperbolic increase?

     Oh yeah.

Many people have fallen down a slippery slope of e-mail, IM, or texting habits that are causing stress and counterproductive behaviors?

     Hell, yes.

Organizations need to do more to understand how they use attentional technologies and capabilities and optimize them where it makes sense?

     Amen, brother.

Many people are finding it more difficult to sort through all the noise to find important information and make good decisions in a timely manner?

     Yes, yes, say it again!

I buy into all of that – I really do.  I’m not a member of Stowe Boyd’s “overload, schmoverload” club. But it seems like at the other extreme a “war on interruptions” was declared somewhere along the way that I just don’t buy into (for a typical example, see here).  How can I not be on that bandwagon when it seems like common sense?  While I believe information overload and information stress are under-diagnosed issues, an easily quotable number incorrectly pinning this problem on one specific cause (unnecessary interruptions) can overmedicate for one symptom while ignoring a more holistic approach.

Let me step back for a minute and explain why I disagree with statements like “The cost of unnecessary interruptions plus recovery time (time spent getting back to where you were, if indeed you do get back there) to the U.S. economy is $650 billion as of 2007. Most interruptions are neither urgent nor important. The above represents 28% of the knowledge worker’s day.” (This comes from a Basex newsletter).

First, everything seems to count as an interruption, from socializing to e-mail (e-mail just sits there until you check it – how is that an interruption? It’s a “distraction” like having a TV in your office. Turn off alerts if they annoy you).  Second, the time eaten up by interruptions is touted but not the time saved for those who felt impelled to interrupt.  Third, before the word “interruption” I’ve noticed the modifier “unnecessary” casually flickers in and out (such as when the cost figure was $588 billion and didn’t mention “unnecessary”) despite the complexity involved in making a such a value judgement about each interruption.

I think it’s important to have realistic goals about how much fat is there to be cut.  If 20% of that 28% really can’t be touched, then someone proposing a project to tackle info-stress or interruptions should make clear they are going after 8%, not 28%.  The dangers of pumping up the inefficiency being tackled are:

  • There’s danger in promising more than they can fix (you’re setting yourself up for failure).
  • There’s danger of causing a net loss by cutting beneficial (to the organization) interactions.  This must be tied to optimizing enterprise productivity – not the productivity of one worker at the expense of others.
  • There are negative cultural impacts that could result if one thinks there is 28% waste out there and a major crackdown is needed.  Extreme problems tend to lead to extreme actions.
  • There’s a danger in proposing a number that is so uncredible that an executive decision maker dismisses the bearer of the information (article, consultant, internal employee asking for a mandate to address the issue).  Executives are used to squeezing out a few percentage points of inefficiency. Being told there’s 28% sitting around just causes eye-rolling – I’ve seen it myself.

I wonder if these 28% and $650bn stats would stand a reversal test.  If totally unnecessary interruptions are costing this much, does that mean eliminating them would save 28% of time and $650bn?  If not, what’s going unsaid?  If you lump distractions and socializing with interruptions or play loose with “unnecessary” then you’re implying a payoff that is an order of magnitude more than what is really achievable.  There’s a base level of inefficiency to all human work that won’t be eliminated unless you get rid of the humans, so understand how much you really stand to gain as you tackle this problem.  Dividing the two terms out (and literally meaning “interruptions” when using that term) allows creation of metrics, ROI, and strategies to address that can be applied to interruptions but would be useless against distractions and socializing. I would focus on how to improve the effectiveness of information workers by pulling more important information forward and pushing less important information back rather than sending in an exterminator to blast all the (unnecessary) interruptions.



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  1. […] am | In Attention Management, Information Work, interruption science | My last posting (”I’m a Conscientious Objector in the War on Interruptions“) was about how, despite my belief that information overload and interruptions are a real […]

  2. […] as an example of one extreme way of estimating it, but follow up by talking about the importance of determining a realistic goal for improvement.  Once you get executives to buy into a strategy based upon dollar savings rather than quality […]

  3. […] is a war on workplace interruptions that often depends on sloppy, one-sided math and broadening the definition to munge interruptions […]

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