If you work in an office, especially in I.T., you don’t need a study or a statistic to know that there are an ungodly amount of interruptions that take place in your average work day. But here’s an excerpt from a study anyway:
a recent ethnographic study in an IT support organization revealed that workers spent an average of just 11 minutes on a task before being interrupted or moving on to a new task, and more than half the interruptions (57%) were unrelated to the task at hand.
Nothing achieves getting less productivity out of your workplace like being constantly interrupted by emails, instant messaging, phone calls or the (not all the time) dreaded “shoulder tap”.
But it’s a 2 minute question, you can just get back to it straight away right?
Complex problem solving is… Complex.
In Andreas Fischer, Samuel Grei, and Joachim Funke article on Complex Problem Solving (CPS) they discuss John Sweller’s Cognitive Load Theory. In a nutshell, people have a “working memory” which can process 2-3 chunks of information simultaneously, and a “long-term memory” which is just unlimited storage of static information. During problem solving patterns are identified and the problem solver saves these ‘models’ of this experience in what’s known as as schemata or automations. It’s these schamata that allows ‘experts’ understand and solve complex problems faster. Experts are able to have these schemata in “working memory” as more complex chunks than simple chunks novices work with and thereby saving work load.
In the case of the expert, having and holding those more complex models in your “working memory” i.e. your mind, while trying to process and apply scenarios and theories against it is not something that you can turn on and off like a light swtich. It’s like building a carefully constructed house of cards, and having something regularly pulling a card down on the 2nd and 3rd levels (email, instant message). Or tearing the whole thing down altogether with a shoulder tap or “quick meeting”.
As a novice, the same result but a different kind of pain. As Fischer, Grei and Funke discuss in their paper, a novice doesn’t have the ‘schemata’ or complex model yet so their workload is of learning the complexities of the system they are trying to figure out. The schemata also has an ‘executive function’ meaning it intuitively guides the problem solving, whereas the novice only has inefficient and general guidance which causes addtional workload.
Okay, so “work is hard for everyone” expert or novice, what’s your point?
My point is what’s the cost of that interruption on the productivity of your team? your workplace?
Time costs money
Now, far be it from me to be the one to motivate employees to make the company more profitable for the employer - that’s their business. I’ve just never been a fan of inefficiency. Having 4 people do the work of 1 person is not efficient. Paying for 8 platforms that do the same thing is not efficient. Interruptions mean the person being interrupted is not able to deliver - or worse, deliver at more cost (time, effort, stress) - what they are capable of delivering. [Jones & Hodgets] experiments studied the effects of interrptions and concluded
The experiments show that even brief and relatively undemanding interruptions incur a time cost to primary task performance
The cost is exacerbated by both a more complex secondary task and one that occurs earlier in the course of problem solving when demands on working memory are high.
Why the interruptions?
I don’t believe people interrupt each other to be annoying, or malicious (not often anyway), but in my experience it’s an indication of a system breakdown, or absense of a system altogether.
What I mean by that is after enough interruptions, instead of thinking “that guy is useless!” I started thinking “Why?… is that guy useless?” ;)
It could be an anxious Project Manager not able to handle the client, interrupting you for reassurance. It could be a Junior Developer not getting enough support from the Senior Devs on how to do things. It could be faulty infrastructure held together by hacks that need constant interruption to get it band-aided til next time.
When you start looking at the reasons behind the interruptions, you start to realise you can’t fix people, but you can fix systems.
Problem Solving for Good
When you like seeing things run smoothly and efficiently you stop getting annoyed at the interruptions (well, you do your best) and start thinking what you could do to help solve the reasons people need to interrupt you.
Do they need some documentation on how to do their thing? You’re a smart cookie, you know how to figure things out. A few hours of writing up some documentation and taking a few of the relevant teams through it will save you countless hours of productivity otherwise handed to interruptions and lost trains of thought.
Do they need training on the new systems? An couple of hour-long overview sessions with some Q&A with the teams that need it will again pay dividends in people being empowered to help themselves, and take some of the constant interruption workload off your plate.
Studies and anecdotal evidence has long shown interruptions to be a productivity killer in the workplace. We don’t need to be convinced that it’s not a good thing for people trying to do good work, or the companies that flush this interruption cost down the drain. But with a little bit of empathy and understanding from people in a position to make a difference, we can identify the systems the need their problems solved, offer solutions and make work just a little bit better for everyone (including ourselves).