Merry… The Art of Overcoming Interruptions

We Wish You a Merry Christmas and a…um…(sorry, incoming tweet)

So Sunday is Christmas and Monday is Boxing Day. It’s a time when…
Umm, excuse me, let me just answer this one text.
It’s a time when families and friends come together and…
Ahh, one second, I need to respond to this tweet.
So where was I? Right.? …when families gather and…oops, excuse me, a friend with Doctors Without Borders is skyping me from Burma. Hmmm, now I lost my train of thought.

Welcome once again to the age of…interruptions. Let me make my yearly virtual trek back to Helsinki, Finland (whose students once again stand at the top of the international class) for that doctoral dissertation on—shoot, I have to retweet this one thing, hold on—interruptions or, more formally, cognitive science.

“Constant interruptions [in the office] both slow down the work and cause forgetfulness,” Antti Oulasvirta is quoted on the website (where it is a balmy -1 Celsius today). “People are also more susceptible to confusion after an interruption and think that they have already completed tasks which in fact they have not. Evidence of this can also be found in investigation reports on aviation accidents.”

How many of us ever do one thing at a time anymore? Multitasking has become an art form. We—at least here in the U.S.—need laws that say you can’t text and drive at the same time. (Now the National Transportation Safety Board has urged states to ban drivers from using hands-free devices, including wireless headsets.) At the cinema last week, I heard a woman’s cell phone go off…and saw her answer it and launch into a conversation!

What’s nice about Oulasvirta’s work is that he appears to seek solutions. In the interruption dissertation, he “looked at conditions under which IT users could recall the task that has been interrupted and resume it easily. This was measured through the accuracy of their memory in a variety of situations. It emerged that keeping certain things in mind was easier if large, previously stored, blocks of information could be applied to the work at hand.”

Wrote Oulasvirta: “The best solution is to do things always in the same order and organize your tasks in such a way that you will not be interrupted when you are busy with an entirely new issue or when solving a major problem. Long-term working memory will ensure that everything will not have to be actively recalled nor do we have to keep actively recalling things during interruptions, since our environment offers clues that will help us to reactivate our memory. After all, people do learn to cope with interruptions.”

So where was I? (Just approved a new LinkedIn connection!) It makes sense. If I write this column every day at 7:30 am., then people—office mates, SIPA colleagues and even friends—will know this and try to leave me be at that time. Then it’s up to me to refrain from the cavalcade of social media that comes in. While the dissertation acknowledges that skilled people can acquire a memory skill which helps them to surmount interruptions, Oulasvirta remains wary. “It is, however, possible that we will be forced to adapt to changes in the working environment that are too rapid to store in our memory, which will increase considerably the detrimental effects of interruptions.”

It’s fascinating stuff. One more great thing about Oulasvirta; he has a sense of humor. This is the quote he uses before his bio: “I have always wished that my computer would be as easy to use as my telephone. My wish has come true. I no longer know how to use my telephone.” — Bjarne Stroustrup

Happy Holidays everyone! Look for the Week in Review tomorrow and then SIPAlert Daily will take Monday off before returning for some end-of-year musings and best-ofs.


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