The Promise of a New Year

What a difference one day makes.  On December 31, we are at the end of a year, recollecting its joy, sorrow, tragedy, progress, and setbacks.  By the time we celebrate the arrival of the New Year, everyone is ready for a fresh start.

On January 1, we have a tabula rasa; everything looks promising.

What a difference a single day makes.

Then reality sets in.  We start to work and we get interrupted.  Interrupted by IMs, interrupted by spam, interrupted by reporters calling about our research on interruptions. But I digress.

So what can we do about interruptions?

Let’s add one item to our New Year’s Resolutions from last week, specifically to learn the difference between urgent, important, and neither of the above.

Human nature is one of the culprits when it comes to dealing with interruptions in the workplace.  People don’t always know how to differentiate between the urgent and the important, or they think that everything that arises is both urgent and important.  A question about the financial report that’s due in six weeks is important, but it’s probably not so urgent that it can’t wait for a better time.  The opposite is also true: something that is not that important – even with a deadline – can wait until it’s truly convenient for both parties.  What then is a truly good interruption?  For the interruptee, it would be an interruption that is both urgent and important to both parties, a confluence of interests.

The cost of interruptions, which we calculated to be $588 billion to the U.S. economy (including “recovery” time, which based on our surveys and interviews of over 1000 knowledge workers can be 10-20 times the duration of a brief interruption), is not a trivial matter.  We can take steps to reduce the number of interruptions by acting only on “good” interruptions and putting off “bad” ones (presumably all of those that are not good) until a time where the impact of the interruption will be lessened.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.

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