Think Leadership Ideas

Resisting the Culture of Interruption

Ever had one of those days when all you did was answer the phone and respond to email? Does it seem like most of your days are spent this way?

The combination of information overload, lean staffing, multi-modal communication, and expectations for instant response are creating an epidemic of frazzled workers. Days are filled with frantic activity that doesn’t allow time to think, reflect, converse, plan, or learn. In time management parlance, we are letting the ‘urgent’ drive out the ‘important.’

My colleague, George Smart, refers to this as the Culture of Interruption – being so bombarded by emails, telephone calls, and “urgent” matters, that we lose sight of the big picture.

In a time where increasingly the value we add comes from brainpower, thinking, and knowledge work, the culture of interruption reduces the value we can add to our businesses and organizations. When we allow firefighting to become a way of doing business we undermine our potential for success.

Like managing a current in a river, we cannot ignore the culture of interruption, rather we must persistently resist it. Key points for managing the mayhem:

Effective leaders, managers, and professionals create reliable systems for routine work (filing, scheduling, messages, information systems), freeing up time to tackle each day’s variables.

We must use our time wisely, but it’s futile to think we can simply “time manage” a way to do everything. It’s increasingly important to be clear about goals, keep them in front of us, and use them to make decisions about what must be done and what can be let go.

Root out disincentives. If performance is measured by the appearance of frantic busyness, then that’s what you will get – at a cost of real productivity.

Make it a team effort. Team members can work together to cultivate a culture of thinking, the team itself becoming a powerful means to resist the culture of interruption.

10 Tips for Resisting the Culture of Interruption

Small improvements do add up. You can’t change your world overnight, but if you continue to make small improvements, they can add up over time to produce big leaps in productivity (and sanity).

1. Check your attitude and thinking. Your company culture may imply that time spent reflecting or planning is not time spent “working”. Are you also self-imposing this belief?

2. Don’t wear your busyness as a badge of honor. When someone asks what you’ve been up to, rise above and respond in terms of goals and achievements.

3. Make meetings matter. Effective meetings aren’t just vehicles for reporting information, rather they are opportunities for people to have real conversations, to form alignment, and to take action.

4. Replace a habit with a habit. Work on one idea for reducing distractions in one area. Repeat until the habit is established before focusing on another idea.

5. Commit to getting it right the first time. Live by the old adage, “If you have time to do it over, you have time to do it right.”

6. Make technology work for you. Learn the tricks of your word processing or email software to create templates for repeating items.

7. Don’t contribute to the email deluge: Reduce use of ‘reply to all’, and if a topic requires three or more emails, have a conversation instead – it’s a more efficient use of everyone’s time.

8. When you have a preference for a form of communication (phone, email, fax, person-to-person, instant messaging), let people know. Find out the preferred mode for your important contacts.

9. Create an oasis. Carve out time when you won’t be interrupted so you can focus on thinking work. Turn the ringer off and let voice mail answer when doing focused work – you do it in theaters.

10. Switching gears is tough. Become aware of which transitions drag on your productivity, anticipate the tension, and mentally prepare to handle those scenarios more smoothly.

Bonus tip: Keep your sense of humor!

by Tom Stevens (c)2005
Tom Stevens helps individuals and organizations create brilliant futures and make a difference. To contact him, visit

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