Last week the New Scientist magazine had an article about productivity: ‘Got a minute?‘ (subscription required to read full article online). It’s a good article highlighting the challenges with working in the face of constant interruptions, and includes the findings from various investigations, such as:

  • Information workers, on average, get just three sustained minutes of
    work before being interrupted (Gloria Mark, University of California, 2006)
  • Interruptions take up over two hours of the working day and costs the US
    economy an estimated $588 billion per year (IT research firm Basex, 2006)
  • People are claiming to have developed attention deficit disorder in
    adulthood (Edward Hallowell, pschiatrist, 2006)
  • Being bombarded with emails and phone calls has a greater effect on IQ
    than smoking marijuana (Glenn Wilson, Institute of Psychiatry, London, 2005)

The article goes on to look at ways of managing the interruptions including where technology can help resolve a situation that many believe has been caused by technology. All very interesting.


What the article doesn’t mention are the benefits of a life interrupted. How exactly did Basex come up with $588 billion as the estimated cost of interruptions to business. Did they assume that all interruptions are negative? Are all interruptions negative? Do they think people should be working non-stop all day on pre-planned tasks (well they have to be pre-planned to avoid any interruptions) to maximise productivity? If that were true, we’d have little use for collaboration or knowledge-sharing tools. And forget about real-time communications or mainstream business intelligence. There’s no need to hurry, do the number crunching and decision-making at the end of the day whilst sorting out the task list to occupy 100% of people’s time tomorrow.

This is the dilemma often facing projects aiming to improve ‘knowledge work’. In the world of knowledge and information, interruptions are often serendipitous but measuring them with anything other than hindsight is extremely difficult. Too often, we see surveys trying to reduce productivity down to a simple metric – how many tasks get completed during the day. This might work in a factory, where workers are required* to take allocated breaks at set times to maximise their physical output. But it is a command-and-control approach from the Push era that doesn’t fit well with information and knowledge work. Such work would be disrupted by enforced rests during the day but people still need to take breaks, mentally as well as physically. More importantly, information and knowledge work do not have the luxury (or limitation) of a production schedule where flexibility and scope are restricted by scarce resources. Quite the opposite is usually the case. Organisations dependent on intellectual capital need to create an environment that trusts people to think and decide as they go along, to change ‘the plan’ if it isn’t working or when the opportunity arises to improve it, to take brain breaks and gossip. Interruptions are an essential part of real-time business. They often represent continual adjustments to activities that reflect changing demands and priorities, as well as chance conversations that discover new problems and solutions.

There’s no doubting that interruptions have an impact on productivity, but that impact can be controlled to limit negative effects and maximise potential benefits. Statements such as ‘interruptions are costing the US economy $588 billion per year’ lead to knee-jerk reactions that focus only on one side of the coin.

*I’m referring to factories who observe human rights and employment laws

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Join the conversation! 2 Comments

  1. The point is : all interrutions have a cost! & human beings are not wired for multitasking. see :a report in Time Magazine in march06; a neat blog archive on the same topic : & another on the same

  2. I completely agree that interruptions have a cost – ultimately, everything we do has a cost. It's just that we spend far more time looking at the negative side of interruptions when there are also benefits. Sometimes, not being interrupted can have a bigger cost… …and yes, it is true that humans are not wired for conscious multi-tasking (we are pretty good at it at a subconscious level). Many thanks for the comment and links – they are both good articles.

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