Too Much Free Time

by Mike Masnick

When Your Entire Work Day Is Made Up Of Interruptions

from the can-you-read-this-whole-post-without-being-interrupted? dept

Admitting that his column is a few months late due to (what else?) interruptions, Mike Langberg of the San Jose Mercury News, writes about how interruptions are taking over the workday. The column includes all of the various interruptions that occurred as Langberg wrote the column, and will probably ring familiar to many readers. Hell, just in writing this post alone, I stopped to answer the phone (twice), responded to an instant message, checked my email, deleted some spam and promised (but have not yet actually done it) to vacuum the house. As the article notes, the real issue isn't so much the interruptions, as the time it takes people to get back to work after the interruptions occur. Breaking that train of thought can really kill a lot of time as you try to get back on track. While the study that Langberg is talking about predicts that one day our whole day will simply be taken up by interruptions, what it really means is that we need better services and technology to manage these things. In the past, there's been talk about systems that understand what you're working on and can interact appropriately. For example, if you're busy writing something, you shouldn't be interrupted, and all calls will go straight to voicemail and emails will be held until you've stopped to take a break (unless, of course, the system recognizes that those calls or emails are especially important). So, perhaps the next hot area to focus on will be ways to give people back their own undivided attention -- though, others will simply claim that a better solution would be for people to learn how to multi-task better. Perhaps the answer is a bit of both need to happen. In the meantime, various interruptions got the better of me on this post also, and while I did eventually vacuum, this post is going up much later than originally intended. Damn those interruptions.

Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1. identicon
    Happy user, Nov 7th, 2005 @ 3:20am

    Delegation and Time Management go hand-in-hand.

    I seem to remember paperback/screen writers would often retreat to a "cabin" or wilderness -- some place far away from any disruptions. Similar to how people turn off their phones or close their windows at night, so they can get a full night's sleep without interruption.

    What is wrong with closing that office door. Turning the phone off. Asking your co-worker to "cover for you" for the next X amount of time... while you work on those projects that need to be completed.

    Part of the problem is that people are not being as self sufficient as they should be -- people these days are starting new tasks without first thinking about how to actually accomplish those tasks. Those people will get stuck in the middle and without thinking further of "what should I do next?", they call to ask their buddy/co-worker, and thus interrupting them for a simple, yet obvious solution.

    The other problem here is that people are trying to accomplish way to many things at one time - especially those who are horrible at time-management skills. Delegation is a key to any successful business -- and without delegation skills, many business owners have driven their start-ups into the ground.

    Look at this "delegation example" as a comparison to knowing when to deal with email interruptions, telephone calls and mundane tasks such as "house work" (thanks for the great idea Mike).

    Let your emails pile up for an hour and then read them once you've finished "TASK A". Answer your work related phones if you are not busy, if you are busy, ask a co-worker if they could grab it for you. If you're at home, screen your calls -- then call the person back AFTER you are done with "TASK A" (if it can wait) -- This is why voice mail is available. Make time for jobs around the house -- finish one project and then move-on to "TASK B" after "TASK A" has been completed.

    Delegation and Time Management go hand-in-hand.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. identicon
    Stoned4Life, Nov 7th, 2005 @ 4:41am

    Re: Delegation and Time Management go hand-in-hand

    I think asking a co-worker defeats the "no-interruption" purpose. After all, just because the task is no longer interrupting you, doesn't mean that you have now interrupted your co-worker. Keep it to yourself, if you have a business call, and you're at work, you HAVE to take it. Unless you have a secretary, you're co-workers aren't in charge of your work-related calls.

    People think having a pager, cell phone, pda, or any other gizmo hanging off their belt makes them look slick. Well, that is if you want to be contacted about every little thing at every given moment of the day. If you have a pager already, might as well get one just for work. This way you can turn all the other stuff off and filter through only work related calls. Also, checking your email?? Hello, I think you can go ahead and close your browser window or email client just for a few minutes while you do your job. You're not getting paid to check your email.

    I think that about covers it.

    "They are only distractions if you let them be distractions."

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. identicon
    KronicD, Nov 7th, 2005 @ 5:20am

    Re: Delegation and Time Management go hand-in-hand

    I think you can go ahead and close your browser window or email client just for a few minutes while you do your job. You're not getting paid to check your email.

    Heh, my job requires me to have IM/Email clients open, email to respond to client requests, IM to talk to other staff as needed. It is horrible :(
    We actually *CANT* disable the IM system on our machines.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. identicon
    Mousky, Nov 7th, 2005 @ 5:31am

    Control of Our Lives

    Better services and technology may make improve some things, but what we really need is to take control of our lives. Do we need to rush to the phone everytime it rings? What is the point of paying for CallerID or voice mail if you answer every call? Do we need to instantly respond to an email? Instant communication has forced us to instantly respond for fear of being left out of the loop. Sometimes being left out of the loop is the best thing that can happen to you.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. identicon
    eskayp, Nov 7th, 2005 @ 5:41am

    Multitasking: better?

    Recent research is showing that multitasking is a less efficient approach to working toward goals than sequential single purpose efforts.
    Software that could intercept AND prioritize issues for a To-Do list would help.
    But how do we create such an application when we can't even apportion tasks with our own wetware?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. identicon
    Chris, Nov 7th, 2005 @ 7:28am

    No Subject Given

    I'm level 1 support for about 200+ Windows/Office users in our company. My day is built around... wait hang on, the phone is rining.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. identicon
    scooper, Nov 7th, 2005 @ 7:36am

    No Subject Given

    clive thompson's article 'meet the life hackers,' published a few weeks ago in the new york times magazine and reprinted on his blog, is about the growing field of interruption science.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. identicon
    Joe, Nov 7th, 2005 @ 7:50am

    Re: No Subject Given

    I hear ya on that. I'm lvl 1 support for 350 PC's in my department - oops, sorry - gotta run.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. identicon
    Chris, Nov 7th, 2005 @ 7:55am

    Addicted to interruption

    I've seen plenty of people who seem to be addicted to these kinds of distractions. People's attention spans become accustomed to the constant change of pace, to the point that they get bored or tired if they finally get the chance to settle down and work on one thing at a time.
    If your manager is one of these interruption addicts, look out! Multi-tasking really does take time out of one's day, and working on too many things at once really does keep most people from getting any one thing done really well. Many managers don't understand this, and don't organize their teams' workloads appropriately.
    If your line of work allows for it, ditch the cell phone, close your email client between times when you actually need to check it, and don't be afraid to tell people you'll call them back. You'll be amazed at how much more actual work you can get done, if only given the chance!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. identicon
    Dave, Nov 7th, 2005 @ 8:42am

    Re: Delegation and Time Management go hand-in-hand

    I wonder what you do.... I work as a network technician, anything from helping someone configure outlook to managing the cluster.... if the phone rings we answer, but if my boss, who sits 8feet away is busy, I take a message. On the other hand, if I am reading a post on why our cluster lies to us, and joe user walks in and starts blathering in jibberish about a percieved problem, I am distracted, not only can I finish my reading, but am not focused on the user issue either...

    There needs to be some barriers/baffles/filters to get work done.... it is a reality in my office

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. identicon
    Jonas, Nov 7th, 2005 @ 9:00am

    Technology = Interruptions = Productivity

    Ah, to have the luxury to spend all day on something. Like a horse. But the auto got us there faster, so we could accomplish more. Have more balls in the air, which necessarily means more interruptions.

    Same is true for computer technology. Email and IMing means a broader network at your fingertips. That means more interruptions.

    The genie is out of the bottle on this one. What I would really like to see is GDP vs interruptions. I bet the people with the most interruptions are credited with the most productivity.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. identicon
    mmiller, Nov 7th, 2005 @ 10:38am

    Re: Technology = Interruptions = Productivity

    I was getting a few things done and then my RSS listener told me I needed to come here and read about interuptions...

    Now, where was I...

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. identicon
    Ben, Nov 7th, 2005 @ 11:12am

    Is Being Interrupt Driven Better Than Being Queued

    The programmer's dillema.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14. identicon
    His Holiness, Nov 7th, 2005 @ 12:33pm

    No Subject Given

    When I sit down to work on this weeks sermon – when I do it in my office – I leave the following instruction with my secretary:

    I will be in my office, unless someone is dead, or dieing (a real possibility in my line of work) I am not to be disturbed.

    I unplug the phone and emerge only for a fresh pot of coffee, or when the sermon is done. And I usually get my sermons written MUCH quicker, and with higher quality than before I instituted this policy. Unless someone dies, then there is a HUGE monkey wrench in my day.

    Now I know that not everyone has a secretary – and unfortunately the vast majority of office workers don’t even have doors on their cubes – don’t get me started on what the cube farm does to the human spirit – but my point is, that not only does the quality of work improve without interruptions, but quantity does as well.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15. identicon
    Fundriving, Nov 7th, 2005 @ 1:00pm


    If your a manager than you must make time to think and to do quality work. You cannot always be in the trenches and multitasking tons of stuff.
    You don't need a secretary. You need to make sure the people that work for you are trained and equipped to do their jobs and that they know what is expected of them. finally, DON'T MICROMANAGE. If you hire compentent people, you shouldn't have to make all the decisions. Push as much of that down the foodchain as possible. Not only does that free your time, it shows trust and respect to your staff. It has worked well for me.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16. identicon
    anomalous cow herd, Nov 7th, 2005 @ 1:20pm

    distraction or interruption

    isn't the article itself an interruption for anyone but me?

    Real problems, if ignored, usually find my inbox anyway...

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17. identicon
    LaidLaw, Nov 8th, 2005 @ 3:38am

    No Subject Given

    So did you get the vacuming done?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18. identicon
    jeremiah, Nov 8th, 2005 @ 7:53am

    nice catch

    Yea, did you get the vacuuming done??

    The article definitely strikes a chord with me. Nice catch.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19. identicon
    cubeangel, Jan 6th, 2012 @ 10:53am


    Actually, it is not called multi-tasking. It is called switch-tasking. This switch tasking is very inefficient. How employers see this as efficient is beyond me. I can mathematically prove working on one task at a time is more efficient than this switch-tasking.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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