InterruptionsIn these disparate environments—cockpits and hospitals and IT workgroups—the right behaviors did not evolve naturally. Nurses weren’t “naturally” given enough space to work without distraction, and programmers weren’t “naturally” left alone to focus on coding. Instead, leaders had to reshape the environment consciously. With some simple tweaks to the environment, suddenly the right behaviors emerged. It wasn’t the people who changed, it was the situation. What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem.

The above paragraph is taken from Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard. The chapter is entitled “Tweak the Environment” and the subject is interruptions and their impact on performance. Statistics show that we are interrupted, on average, every eight minutes. Not only do we lose time due to the interruption itself, but the time to recover, to regroup our thoughts, and get back into the flow of our work can often take more time than the length of the interruption itself.

To make the problem worse, we live in a world that gives us more and different ways to interrupt each other. We carry phones in our pockets and whip them out when it is convenient for us. We give little thought to what the person on the other end of the phone call might have been doing before the phone call interrupted it. Leaders profess the merits of an “open-door policy” and at the same time bemoan they can’t get anything done due to non-stop drop-in visitors.

Let’s face it, to get anything done, we have to have uninterrupted blocks of time. I have written before in this space how we can each carve uninterrupted time for ourselves. But what if you or I are the leader of the organization? What if we are in a position to tweak the environment?

Is email a help or hindrance in the culture of your workplace? If everyone is expected to check email constantly and respond ASAP, expect little work of real value to be accomplished. If, on the other hand, email is used instead of drop-in visits, email becomes a time-saver. We can check and respond to email with the ebb and flow of the day instead of responding to whoever appears at the door.

Are meetings being held simply purely for the purpose of making announcements and random information? One well-worded page can often replace a three-hour meeting. Are meetings called on the spur of the moment, teaching everyone in the office that constructing a plan for the day is an exercise in futility?

My background was educational leadership. I witnessed numerous schools where intercom announcements were made randomly throughout the day. The result was each of those announcement interrupted learning in every classroom in the building, all for the sake of administrative convenience.

Likewise, parents, family friends, and salesmen often wanted to “visit” teachers who were busy teaching students. While each visitor wanted “just a minute,” they failed to realize that “just a minute,” multiplied by the 20 students in the room, has just turned into “just 20 minutes.” Factor in the amount of time needed to recover from the “just a minute” of interruption, and an entire lesson is easily derailed.

When someone else is in charge, we are at his or her mercy to protect our time. Good policies and practices will protect our time and allow us make significant progress on worthy projects. Poor policies and practices fragment our days and try our patience.

Every good thing we do for our students is done through the dimension of time. Preventing interruptions helps us get the most out of the time we are given. Protecting the time of our colleagues helps them be more productive. We can and we must “tweak the environment.” The right behaviors are then sure to follow.

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