Getting in too-much touch (interruption is not collaboration) Jason 21 Jun 2006

51 comments Latest by Martin

I just got back from the Collaborative Technologies Conference in Boston. I was there to talk about some of the ideas behind how we collaborate at 37signals. You can download a PDF of my slides. They’re spartan so they may not make a whole lot of sense unless you were there, but I said I’d post them for everyone at the conference so here they are. [UPDATE]: Here’s a video of my talk.

I had a chance to listen to a few other speakers, and talk to some folks in the hallway before and after my talk, and there was one thing I kept hearing that troubled me: Technology is making it easier and easier to interrupt people — both virtually and physically. Well, they used “collaborate,” I’m using “interrupt.”

Certain software vendors are hailing the promise of “always-on location based awareness.” They suggest that knowing where everyone is all the time (at the office, in the car, on the floor above you, in the building next door, on the road, etc.) and being able to get in touch with anyone anywhere whenever is good for productivity. I’m not so sure.

The way I see it, interruption is being mistaken for collaboration. The are drastically different things. Interruption is productivity’s biggest enemy. It sounds counterintuitive to many, but we should be working harder on staying apart and less on getting in touch too much. A healthy dose of physical and virtual distance is a good thing. If we want to be highly productive we need more alone time.

Being productive isn’t something that just happens. You don’t just sit down and be productive. Real productivity takes time. It’s a process. You make your way into it. Sometimes it takes 15 minutes or a half hour or an hour or more to really get in that zone. And when you’re in that zone you are actually getting real work done. But once you get knocked out of that zone it takes a real toll on you. You go from highly productive to annoyed. And all these new methods of interruption, and the ability of anyone to find you any time, well, I think they’re just making it easier to indirectly annoy people. I don’t have research to back this up, it’s just a gut feeling.

There are different degrees of interruption too. Passive interruption such as an IM or an email can be ignored until you’re ready to deal with it. But active interruption such as when someone physically comes over and taps you on the shoulder, or calls you into a physical meeting, well, that kind of interruption kills the “productivity buzz.” And once that buzz is killed, it takes a while to get that buzz back.

So before you keep trying to keep in touch too much, think about stepping back and being quiet for a while. You’ll be surprised at how much more work you, and the person you were about to interrupt, will get done.

51 comments so far (Jump to latest)

Seth W. 21 Jun 06

I agree (one sec… answering email…) that less interuptions… (shoot, I have to answer this IM) is a good thing.. (new text message: bring home milk)… but (“Hello, this is seth”)… I tell you… (meeting in 2 minutes?)

Mark Gallagher 21 Jun 06

Jason, On a similar note - there is way too much “reaching out” in companies today. Talk to a manager in a big company about a solution to a problem and frequently you are advised to “reach out” to this person, that person and some other person.

It’s a delaying tactic from a manager that doesn’t understand the project well enough to make a decision.

Stop the “reaching out” and just do it.

WmD 21 Jun 06

Wow, your four main points summer up in 12 words, no articles or verbs. I don’t know how more less you can make it.

Don Schenck 21 Jun 06

Hmmmm … so if I can dream up an idea where a web site can somehow be linked to Not Being Interrupted, I can make MY Web 2.0 fortune!

Not likely.

Good post, and I WAY agree. I get interrupted all the time … Grrrr … but it’s not technology, it’s the people!

Joe 21 Jun 06

Jeez, haven’t you ever heard of multi-tasking with your brain? Try some job like running a kitchen - you learn how to stay “in the zone” while dealing with continuous interuptions.

Phil 21 Jun 06

I was listening to a CD today by Christian author John Eldridge that talks about the western culture being caught in the grip of being “driven”. It’s from a Christian perspective so it may not be for everyone on SVN, but as I was listening to the CD, I was reminded of things the 37s people have talked about in the past.

One of his main points of the CD was people often mistake “busyness” for “significance”. John asked some questions at the top like, how many of you will be in a meeting and making a to-do list for things you have to do after the meeting. Or, how much panic do you feel if you forget your cell phone at home?

One section talks about the need for solitude, and time with no adjenda at all, not even “prayer time” or “quiet time” - just take a hike and be quiet, alone, and re-connect with yourself, maybe meditate, maybe re-connect with G-d if one is so inclined.

I think the idea of “being busy” and “looking busy” and chat, phone calls, interuptions - and the need for solitude in personal life - are related to the idea of “alone time” with work and getting things done. Yeah OK, it’s Christian stuff and comes from totally left field to 37s and SVN, but I think it’s a similar thought.

Joe 21 Jun 06

Jeez, haven’t you ever heard of multi-tasking with your brain? Try some job like running a kitchen - you learn how to stay “in the zone” while dealing with continuous interuptions.

filmnut 21 Jun 06

Productive technology is only invasive when you want it to be. Email sits in an inbox waiting to be checked. Voice mail sits on server waiting to be heard. These systems should work like force fields around you. They block you from being interrupted when you’re “in the productivity zone,” but still allow you to respond or attend to a pressing matter (a call, a voicemail, a new post in your Bloglines account, etc.) when the time is appropriate. Downloading software that notifies you the second your Bloglines account gets a new post, or the moment a new email comes in, or having a phone the *beeps* constantly until you check a voicemail, causes way more harm than good. The point is for the end user to develop and stick to habits which allow him/her to work these “technology inboxes” into their lives in such a way that he/she does not see diminishing returns.

Ben 21 Jun 06

I couldn’t agree more!! This is a big issue—bigger, I think, than most people are willing to recognize. We’re so hyper-connected that we aren’t getting things DONE. I’m guilty party #1, but I’m sure glad to hear that there are other people out there in this business who are thinking the same way.

Don Schenck 21 Jun 06

What Phil said. Some of my “down time” is spent in the garage or on the deck, watching the world go by while I enjoy a good cigar.

And filmnut. Let us never forget the all-powerful “Off” button.

And Mark. I HATE that phrase “reach out…”. ARGH!

Phil 21 Jun 06

I agree w/ Don about Mark’s “reach-out”. Sounds very Office Space to me. Next time a manager suggests this, put your arms in front of you, open hands, and stare blankly as if to ask, “OK, now what?” :-)

John Beales 21 Jun 06

Amen to this post. It’s so true, you can be working on something and someone, via phone or IM usually for me, will interrupt you and voila! What should have taken 30 minutes takes an hour or two.

I try to give myself at least one, hopefully two, blocks of time during the day where I put off responding to all but the most urgent matters. To any of my clients that may be reading this: I know that it may take me a little longer to get back to you, but it allows me to get your work done a lot faster.

Michael Doan 21 Jun 06

I really like the idea of tiny decisions. On large projects the number of status meetings to “touchbase” so everyone is “on the same page” are astronomical and they probably result from the inability to make tiny decision — I hate these meetings.

An former boss told me to do the least amount of work to get the job done becuase its easier to do additional work to fix a problem then to try to undo work that caused the problem.

JB 21 Jun 06

I absolutely agree with this, though ‘tiny decisions’ allways carry the risk of reaching local optimal…

Brandon 21 Jun 06

Wow, I have just one thing to say. Thank you. I’ve been trying to explain this to my clients forever, but they think that I should be a phone call or email away all the time. If I don’t respond immediately, they think something is wrong and just start calling and emailing like crazy.

Explaining that I need segments of uninterrupted time to get productive work done is almost impossible… but now I can at least point them to this blog post for a 2nd objective opinion!

Chris 21 Jun 06

This post is all of the “signal” I needed to last me the whole month. I never made the connection between “interruption” and “collaboration” but it is something I have been pondering for a long time now. I have somehow created a work environment around me that enables clients to call me any time and it really ends up being that I enjoy working an all nighter simply because I don’t have interruptions.

Charlie 21 Jun 06

For me the time to get “in the zone” takes about an hour, and I typically warm up to it (take on a small 30 min to 1 hr project first, then launch into something more serious).

This is a concept I’ve been trying to get across to my own boss for months now to no avail. Anyone out there got a suggestion on how to introduce the idea to a boss who’s convinced that you have to constantly be available to clients to be productive and have good customer service?

Alex Bunardzic 21 Jun 06

I think what Jason was implying is not so much the dangers of using technology to ‘reach out’ and actually interrupt, as the oppressiveness we all feel knowing that even when we run into the restroom to take a dump, the ‘electronic leash’ makes it easy for our oppressors to know exactly what we’re doing and where are we hiding.

This is why I don’t carry a cell phone with me. When I weigh benefits of having a mobile phone versus the oppressiveness they bring to me, I tend to decide that they are way more oppressive.

I also hate those workplaces where you’re forced to wear a little electronic tag around your neck, like a retard.

Have you noticed how all the slave-minded people enjoy bragging about their electronic leashes? Blue tooth this, Blackberry that… Moronic. People in real power don’t have those idiotic gimmicks around their ankles or wrapped around their earlobe.

A person in real power and control over his life doesn’t even wear a watch!

Cameron Booth 21 Jun 06

Jason, timely point for me. I came home from work today hugely stressed for having not gotten through my work planned for the day. Why? Interruption.

I love the guys I work with, they’re great, but man, we need to institute some “quiet time” or something, as today was entirely spent answering questions, then trying to get into my own work, then answering another question, etc…..sometimes plugging in the iPod and tuning out helps, but not enough.

Jamie Madden 21 Jun 06

There is a very large body of research that investigates this exact problem. It started out with electronic meeting support systems from IBM [1] back in the late 70�s early 80�s this evolved into direct video links between distributed locations [2, 3]. Technology evolved, protocols developed [4] and the number of technologies and activities that can distract us have increased. (Internet, mobile phones, email etc)

I believe that a lot of the time these companies that provide such �awareness� mechanisms are in fact just tacking on some kind of direct communication medium that is nothing more than an interruption. [5, 6] Outline some of the problems with managing interruptions and displaying useful awareness information to your colleagues in an effort address these problems. Both of these papers are within the research realm, however I believe they are still very relevant. I�ve only listed a few papers here, but from their reference lists, you can go and find more related work.

Hope this is useful,



1. Nunamaker, J.F., et al., Electronic meeting systems. Communications of the ACM, 1991. 34(7): p. 40 - 61.
2. Dourish, P. and S. Bly, Portholes: supporting awareness in a distributed work group, in ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems�CHI�92, P. Bauersfeld, J. Bennett, and G. Lynch, Editors. 1992, ACM Press: Monterey, CA. p. 541-547.
3. Fish, R.S., et al., Evaluating video as a technology for informal communication, in Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on Human factors in computing systems. 1992, ACM Press: Monterey, CA. p. 37-48.
4. Ljungstrand, P. and Y.H.a. Segerstad, Awareness of presence, instant messaging and WebWho. SIGROUP Bulletin, 2000. 21(3): p. 21-27.
5. Dabbish, L. and R.E. Kraut, Controlling interruptions: awareness displays and social motivation for coordination, in Proceedings of the 2004 ACM conference on Computer supported cooperative work. 2004, ACM Press: Chicago, IL. p. 182-191.
6. Hudson, S.E. and I. Smith, Techniques for addressing fundamental privacy and disruption tradeoffs in awareness support systems in Proceedings of the 1996 ACM conference on Computer supported cooperative work 1996, ACM Press: Boston, MA. p. 248-257.

Stephen 21 Jun 06

I just posted a comment on another usability-blog on this meme. Microsoft is pushing it’s Windows mobile (ghastly idea) for phones on the London Underground using a series of posters with slogans like, “work and play when you choose” and “edit your excel spreadsheet” at the gold course. I’m not going to delve into the social and timekeeping implications of fiddling with a spreadsheet (on a phone screen?!) while you should be enjoying your game of golf.

But you should be allowed down time. Few jobs actually require people to be contactable on-demmand, especially outside of working hours. Microsoft’s claim that I’ll be able to choose when to work and play is fallous unless buying the phone assures self-employment and insomniac customers; my working time is still dictated by my employer, as is the case for most people. I still work the eight hours I always did for my boss, but now I also work any additional minutes they want to throw my way, sans pay, in my free time or while on holiday by interrupting me.

If I were to find myself at a golf course it would probably be to play golf, or develop a business relationship doing so. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to take their office.

Jennifer Pahlka 21 Jun 06

I guess I basically agree with you, but it really depends on what kind of work you do. My husband is a programmer, and he really needs a lot of quiet time or he doesn’t get anything done. In fact, almost all his actual coding is done when he works from home, usually at night. It’s pretty frustrating because he works a full day at the office with meetings and lunches and shooting the shit and then comes home and says “oh man, I got nothing done today; I gotta work tonight.” But the kind of work I do is more about connecting with other people and responding to people who are trying to connect with me, so I see the concept of interruption a little differently. This is not to say that I sometimes need to just turn off all the sources of distraction and just focus on writing or other projects, but it really does depend on the nature of your work. I can very easily stagnate if I’m not in constant touch with others, both in terms of my actual productivity and in terms of my feeling of engagement and the flow of my ideas.

Linda Stone spoke at CTC today on the Continuous Partial Attention phenomenon, and her metaphor I liked the best was about cycles and seasons. There is no spring if there is no winter. That’s really true fo rme. I need the downtime but I also need the crazy, fast paced multitasking uptime. I just need the right balance.

Stephen 21 Jun 06

Sorry, it’s late, I meant fallacious, not fallous.

JF 21 Jun 06

I just need the right balance.

Oh, totally. It’s all about balance. I just think the balance is out of whack for most people. And I think software and technology is fueling the imbalance more than it’s correcting it.

Neil Wilson 22 Jun 06

One word - Peopleware.

I’ve been banging on about this since 1990.

Go read.

Daniel Kjeserud 22 Jun 06

You’re so right. I share an office with 4-5 other people, and you can really feel it when people are making a lot of noise and interrupts. A link to this post has been sent to all of them. ;)

Michael Ward 22 Jun 06

Maybe we all need ‘office assistants’ - they could work like a PA for a group of people.

They would be the contact point, they will make the informed decision about whether or not we need to be interrupted. Additionaly we could have some scheduled guaranteed quiet time each day.

Turn the e-mail clients off, turn the mobile phone off, turn the blackberry off and let someone else do the communicating as the main part of their job.

Chris Johnson 22 Jun 06

Reminds me of working on a project for IBM-I ended up getting 4-5 phone calls from various VPs from all over the country Every day, all worried about the status of the project. After its successful completion, we walked away from ever doing another project for them because of all their interruptions. Yes it paid well but the interruptions were not worth the hassle since they kept us from doing what we enjoy doing. 4-5 monkeys screaming for attention every day.

Like the posters have said, turn it off. And I admit, with some embarrassment, that I have trouble turning Outlook off for any length of time.

Don Schenck 22 Jun 06

RE: “Peopleware”

Best IT book ever. Must be required reading for every IT manager, director, or whatever title is being bandied about these days.

If you’ve never read it, you will smile in agreement while at the same time crying because you realize just how bad things really are.

Don Schenck 22 Jun 06

In fact, I’ll go one further: If you are interviewing for a job, ask the people who will be your boss if they’ve read “Peopleware”.

If they say “No”, do not take the job!

(With some exceptions, your mileage may vary, past results blah blah…)

JohnO 22 Jun 06

Really hate the “reach out” delay tactic. Hate the ‘status meeting’. Hate the meeting where nothing is decided. Hate that management forces more interaction, where with every interaction you double the noise and cut the signal in half!

Don Schenck 22 Jun 06

Worked for this guy once — wish I could remember his name — who was incredible about *not* delaying.

We’d be in a meeting, and something like “I wonder what Susan means by this Requirement…” would come up, and this guy would *immediately* pick up the phone and call Susan! It was great! We got so much done so fast … wow.

It CAN be done.

Jay Hancock 22 Jun 06

In this month’s Playboy, an article reads that in the corporate world, it takes:
* an average of 11 minutes to get interrupted at work, and
* an average of 24 minutes to get focused again

Anyone see a productivity issue in this model? This may be why starting the day *early* or working *late* becomes productivity time.

Let’s scrap the middle part of the day and go to the beach!

Is there literature for a defensive strategy against interruption? For example, when I am in the zone, I interrupt the people who are interrupting me just when they start and tell them “I’m busy, send me an email.”

Steve R. 22 Jun 06

Q: Why is it that:

- “Doing more” != “Achieving more”
- Staying in touch via cell phones or Blackberry leads to stress, but not achievement?
- Even email can be a hassle (what percentage of email you receive has meaningful, actionable content?)

A: Because most people don’t *think* before they ‘communicate’.

Writing an email, letter or posting makes it easier to organize our thoughts, easier to organize responses and plan activity (for the recipient) AND has the benefit of being less interruptive than a phone call or tap on the cubicle entrance.

It isn’t the *interruptions*, it’s the *piss poor communication skills* in ourselves and others that weakens us.

If you doubt this, consider: why do people hate marketers so much?

Kim Siever 22 Jun 06

I completely disagree. I get far less done when I don’t have interruptions. My entire worklife (minus a stint as a carpet cleaner) has been about interruptions. I have been a courier, a gas jockey, CSR, a dispatcher, web developer for one department and now work in inventory control. If I don’t get interruptions, I don’t have any work to do.

Paul DeMott 22 Jun 06

My immediate superior, Sean, loves to be interrupted. He says that somehow it makes him more prodcutive. If I didn’t interrupt him, he would have nothing to do all day. He basically just surfs the web and posts new links as his AIM status when I’m not interrupting.

Just goes to show you that one man’s annoying interruption is the highlight of another man’s day.

Adam Blinkinsop 22 Jun 06

@Paul: Why is he in the office? What is his job? Sounds like he should just be able to stay home and keep his phone on. What a great job :)

@Joe, higher up: Have you ever worked on a 30,000 file legacy web application? Perhaps one where there are so many interconnected pieces and business rules holding them together that you need to focus so you don’t break something? Working in a kitchen is slightly different from coding (and that’s not knocking professional chefs, who are extremely skilled at what they do: it’s just a different job).

Mauricio Espinosa 22 Jun 06

“Real productivity takes time and it�s a process” (as Jason states). The interruptions and the time it takes to get into the zone is unfortunately part of the process too. If you want to reduce this waste, it needs to be recognized first by all the people involved in the process. Then, as a team look for ways to reduce them. Some times interruptions are a neccesary evil so they need to be “effective” and after the interruption, the person that has been interrupted need to develop some kind of ritual that takes him or her into the zone as soon as possible. Does anybody knows how to enter into the zone in 5 minutes or less?

tim 22 Jun 06

thanks for this post and outstanding comments!!!

if i can convince my wife to read this, without her talking….then digesting the message……

we’ll both be financially set!!

bashon 23 Jun 06

Entering the zone seems based on the presumption you ever left it. Believing you didn’t might help. Or at least not be unhelpful. Of course, this might not work for those who consider this cheating.

Don Schenck 23 Jun 06

I worked at a place where I had my own office and then got scolded for closing the door to work!

“Worked”. Past tense. The President — Jobe — was an idiot. I wish I would see him to tell him to his face.

Ryan Barr 24 Jun 06

This whole article is basically a reflection upon my entire life:

Wake up, eat something, sit in front of laptop. Start to code, IM appears, throws me off completely and a half hour later I realize I should have been working.

You do say an IM or an e-mail can be ignored, but honestly, it is really hard. On a Windows enviroment it sits there and blinks (I am aware that you can modify the settings, I am just too lazy). As well Thunderbird pops up a nice little message in the bottom-right-hand-corner of your screen for a few seconds and it is oh-so tempting.

Anyway, you make good a valuable statements. Nice morning read, thanks for posting =).

- Spooky

Joe Clark 26 Jun 06

Essentially, this posting is a way to argue that a company like 37 Signals, which is too poor and too distributed to run a single office, is the only model on which to run a business. Sometimes you have to put people in the same building, and yes, they will interrupt you.

JF 26 Jun 06

Essentially, this posting is a way to argue that a company like 37 Signals, which is too poor and too distributed to run a single office

That’s rich. We have an office for all 5 people in Chicago, we just don’t use it much.

Tom Frauenhofer 28 Jun 06

Don Schenck: I worked at a place where I had my own office and then got scolded for closing the door to work!

Same happened to me! I need to have some peace and quiet during the day to get work done. One trick I’ve found is if you’re in a large enough office building have your office in a different location - the distance discourages interruption and moves it to a medium where it is manageable. If they want you, they’ll come and they’ll knock.

Soyuzno 05 Jul 06

No wonder I lost my creativity and productivity. My employer always tap my shoulder every 5 minutes. Asking how’s everything going, how am i, am i ok, etc. It’s kinda hassle for me.

cline 06 Jul 06

How much “productivity” was just wasted by all of you whiny kids reading this and posting your own crap to go with it? Shush and go work. No wonder nothing gets done.

Dave Davis 15 Jul 06

Besides the interuption of instant messages, there is another assult on productivity and that is “multi-tasking”.

Many people think they are great multi-taskers and will do email or writing duing a conference call and think they are getting more done. But when they are asked a question, they may request you to repeat it or provide an answer completely unrelated.

Many people have time wasted while the multi-tasker is brought up to speed for what they missed while not paying attention.


Martin 03 Aug 06

I guess for some jobs, you have to be “in the zone” for a while to get anything done, I can assure that that’s not the kind of work that’s high-paying and leadership oriented.

The best leaders I know of (guys who I’ve met who run companies like 3M and Apple) can take multiple hits for information at once, and still function at dealing with detail level stuff an almost unconcious level at a level what mere mortals would call “the zone”.

I know that for me, to deal with a slightly repetitive, complex task, for example, working page code for multiple versions of a web site, I just don’t have the brain capacity to do much more than work on the code. A phone call makes me “break out of the zone” almost instantly.

But I knew an amazing technologist who unfortunately died a couple of years ago, who would be merrily typing away writing custom source code for a bank’s firewall while chatting with me on the phone and answering a series of questions from people “invading” his cube. In the end, his code worked, we had a nice chat and his co-workers saw him as an “easy to work with” guy.

My point is that “alone time” and “interruption free” time is just plain not possible for most companies, so either we learn to deal with it or get another job.