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We Interrupt Your Regularly Scheduled Email

The BrainYard - Where collaborative minds congregate.

Continuing on the theme we began weeks ago, Mike Langberg, a reporter at the San Jose Mercury News, devoted a recent column, "Eventually, Our Entire Day Will Consist of Interruptions", to research Basex published on interruptions.  Mike was originally going to write about this in September, when our report on the cost of interruptions came out... but he got interrupted.  In fact, he barely made it through writing his column, as he was "interrupted," or interrupted himself, five times (e.g., "Maybe I'll go to the kitchen and get myself a small snack," "let me quickly check the local park department Web site," "There's the phone again. It's my editor"...).

When Mike called me last week for an interview, we were interrupted (a phone call from my mother) as well.

To recap the results of what we found after interviewing more than 1,000 knowledge workers, on average each knowledge worker loses 2.1 hours of productivity each day due to unnecessary interruptions and recovery time.  It's actually the recovery time that's a key concept.  While an interruption may last just a few moments, it may take five, ten, or many more times as long to get back into the flow of one's work.  Or one might lose track entirely of what one was doing, and move onto something else.

Based on empirical evidence gathered over the past two decades, we were able to project that the impact of interruptions will increase at a rate of 5% per year.  That means, that if we don't start doing something about the problem and leave it unchecked, the entire workday, as the title of Mike's column aptly noted, will consist of interruptions.

One of the reasons this is becoming a far greater problem is, as I put it to Mike, that knowledge workers seem to acquire a quasi-attention deficit disorder when they work.  Human curiosity takes over - hmmm, perhaps I have new mail, perhaps something important.  Of course, some people are more disposed to multitasking than others (more on this in a future column) and some are less so.  In addition, few managers are really comfortable in managing knowledge work and knowledge workers, let alone telling them how to best use the technology in front of them.  

If I hadn't shut off the new mail alerts in my Lotus Notes client years ago, it would be a constant, uninterrupted sound right now.  Anyone can disable these alerts with minimal technical skill.  Try it.

With respect to instant messaging, a technology that is often cited as a great interrupter, if you are using an enterprise-class system, such as IBM Lotus Instant Messaging (née Sametime) or Microsoft Live Communications Server, learn to indicate your presence with a greater granularity and clarity.  Unfortunately, only 5% or so of companies use such systems, even though 80% of all knowledge workers depend on IM.  The rest are using public IM systems, such as MSN Messenger and AIM.  These tools don't aren't designed for the enterprise and don't always allow for the same degree of control.  But even they allow users to indicate a variety of availability states and messages.

Technology is but one of many interrupters (people are in many respects their own worst enemies and self-interrupt as much as they are interrupted) but it can be managed.  All we need to do is interrupt what we are doing for a moment and change the settings.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled interruptions.

Editor's Choice
Brian T. Horowitz, Contributing Reporter
Samuel Greengard, Contributing Reporter
Nathan Eddy, Freelance Writer
Brandon Taylor, Digital Editorial Program Manager
Jessica Davis, Senior Editor
Cynthia Harvey, Freelance Journalist, InformationWeek
Sara Peters, Editor-in-Chief, InformationWeek / Network Computing