The Tragedy of the Interruption Junkie
Ozan Onay — 15 May 2011
You just found out that your friend has a gambling problem.
What do you do?
If you’re like most people, you would feel compelled to help. You might remind her that gambling is unlikely to deliver long-term happiness. Or, perhaps you might emphasize the cost of her addiction to her loved ones and the broader community. Either way, you would intervene in an attempt to correct her behavior.
So, why sit by while your colleagues are afflicted with an addiction to interruption?
Have no doubt, the Interruption Junkie is a tragic figure in the same class as the alcoholic or gambling addict. Every time he checks his email, a budding creative thought is left unfertilized. Nascent innovations are neglected perpetually, for just a moment, while he responds to a text message, then a push notification, a tweet, a request from a colleague. He sure feels high when he deftly parries ten small problems, but were the problems real or imagined? Were the solutions merely incremental?
Not only is the Interruption Junkie tragically afflicted like other addicts, he is also subject to the same operant conditioning. Like pulling the lever on a slot machine, checking his email constitutes a variable ratio reinforcement schedule. Also, both the drug addict and the Interruption Junkie are engaging in hyperbolic discounting—the immediate high of heroin trumps long-term health considerations; the immediate high of responding to a Skype message trumps long-term substantial accomplishment.
Like most addictions, there are already plenty of resources for those affected. However, there is little literature on preventing this sinister affliction in the workplace. Hear are some approaches that might work for you:
- Don't send emails. At least, avoid sending your colleagues questions or tasks during the work day. Certainly avoid group emails and "reply all". Try to solve your own problems or chat over lunch. Consider scheduling regular "office hours" or 1-to-1 meetings to ask questions en masse. Watch this short video of Skinner discussing operant conditioning and think that every time you send an email you're feeding the pigeon (or paying the slot jockey).
- Be slow. Foster an attitude that interruption is an anathema by responding on your own schedule. Celebrate the completion of long, boring tasks; avoid rewarding responsiveness. Treat focus and concentration as sacrosanct while trivializing small, ostensibly "pressing" tasks. Nothing is urgent enough to disrupt flow.
- Encourage play. If somebody needs a break, it's better for them to mess around on YouTube or do a muscle up than seek relaxation in an activity that needs to appear work-like. If people check their email whenever they need a break, they'll feed the addiction while missing out on the respite they need to re-focus on difficult work.
If you know any techniques for reducing interruption addiction in your workplace, we’d love to hear about them in the comments.