Recently, a friend of mine described someone as “flicker-minded.” He meant someone who was always jumping from one task to another, one idea to another, but never actually accomplishing anything. Often the flicker-minded person is interrupt driven – any interruption takes immediate control of his mind, and he spends time up to the next interruption dealing with it. Often there is enough time to get an email out, thus potentially triggering other flicker-minded individuals to, well, flicker. We live in a very connected world, which is another way of saying we live in a world with constant interruptions. Phone calls. Email. Tweets. Text messages. Facebook postings. Even the old fashioned knock on the door.
Humans have been genetically engineered to take interruptions seriously. If you are busy knapping a rock to make a stone tool and you hear a nearby growl, it is critical that you literally drop everything and make an immediate fight or flight decision. Fortunately, the mind does not take the time to put everything carefully away so it can later easily pick up where it was. There might not be a later if there is a delay in taking action. When you have dealt with the bear, you look around for the rock and knapping stone and take the time to figure out exactly what you were doing and where you were in the process before resuming the task.
As a result, humans are not very good at multi-tasking. We have all been in the phone meeting where you hear unrelated side conversations, the constant clicking of multiple keyboards, and the usual, “I’m not sure I understood the question” from someone who was specifically named in said question. It really means, “Ah, I was busy doing something else and didn’t pay any attention to you.” I get really annoyed when I get an email from someone in the same meeting I’m in about an entirely different topic. Now both of us are distracted, although part of that is my fault for allowing my own flicker.
Last Wednesday, the Washington Post published an article with some supporting stats: Twenty-eight percent of traffic accidents in the US occur when people talk on cellphones or send text messages while driving (based on a report from the National Safety Council). That translates to 1.4 million crashes each year caused by phone conversations, and 200,000 blamed on texting. That is a lot of pain, lost time, and financial loss caused by easily avoidable interruptions.
Everyday, you have to be ready to react to the dumb driver and all of the other hazards in daily life. The same thing happens in the office. You get a phone call and you immediately switch your attention. How many times have you hung up the phone, and not been able to remember what you were doing, and what was that great idea you had that has now flickered away?
As an aside, when was the last time you actually “hung up” the phone, or “dialed” it? The younger generation has no idea where those terms come from – just part of the strangeness of us old folk.
People talk about walking and chewing gum at the same time as difficult. Walking and texting is almost impossible, as proven by the almost daily YouTube examples. East London’s Brick Lane wrapped lampposts in fluffy, white rugby goalpost cushions due to the number of walking while texting accidents there. The cushions were soon removed. Even the British have a limit to absurdity. The latest studies I could find showed about 1,000 walking while texting accidents resulting in emergency room visits in 2008 in the US, double the number that occurred in 2007 which was almost double the 2006 count. In 2008, we in the US sent only about 1 trillion texts. In 2010 we sent 2.1 trillion texts.
If you can’t walk and text, you can’t pay attention to someone else and text.
For most of us, you can ignore the interruption in the office. You don’t have to answer that phone, read that email or text message right now. You can, in fact, turn it all off while you are concentrating on an important task. You might be surprised what you can do in an hour without any interruptions. Even a nap is better uninterrupted. Those messages will all patiently wait.
The same goes when you are the interrupter. Do you need to make a call, or can you just send an email? Don’t send an email, then text 30 seconds later because you didn’t get a response. You can probably wait even an hour for the answer. And maybe get in some good concentration time.
Face time with a real person should always have priority over a piece of electronics, even if that “face time” is over the phone. Interrupting a conversation to read and even respond to an inanimate object or take another call is not only exceedingly rude, but is now wasting that other person’s time. It sends a clear message: this interruption is more important than you are.
The last word:
I am not a believer in New Year’s resolutions. In fact, the last one I made was to not make any more, and I have actually kept that resolution. But just for the fun of it, periodically turn off all of the interruptions. Just concentrate on the task at hand. Start with just ten minutes and work up to an hour or two at a time. You might just be amazed.
Comments solicited, especially from the under-30 crowd.
Keep your sense of humor.