Monday, August 27, 2012
Interruptions, focus, and creativity
Studies of multitasking suggest that individuals experience interruptions around every 4 to 11 minutes. As you can probably guess, many of these interruptions are self-initiated. Self-interruptions are those moments where you choose, even if you’re not fully aware of this choice, to discontinue a task before it’s completed or before you’ve reached the goal that you had set and without being prompted by an external event. And this is significant, because these days all the talking and writing about the numerous interruptions and the increasing problems related to focus and attention seems to concentrate on our constantly beeping, blinking, bugging smartphones, i-pads, twitter accounts and, in an old fashioned way, people walking into your office. I think there is more to it.
Much of your daily interruptions and much of your troubles with focus and with finishing tasks before starting a different one is caused by you and me rather than it being a function of technology, of other people, or of the rapidly changing and intruding information environment. I am sorry to be ruining your comfortable victim-role, but it’s just not the complete picture.
It is not the complete picture from yet another perspective either. I’d like to make a business case for allowing, creating, and optimally using interruptions, whether caused by others or yourself, rather than writing them off as just causing concentration and focus problems and decreasing efficiency. As stated in Imagine by Jacob Tudor Baruch, “The number one skill of creativity is the ability to view things from multiple perspectives. As an example, when Einstein was bored during his physics class, he transported himself from where he was sitting (in a classroom chair) to another time and place. Specifically, Einstein used thought experiments to transport himself to where he would be sitting on top of a photon in from of a beam light”. You’re getting the picture, I am sure. I offer you this perspective - one where (self) interruptions can generate new impulses and energy levels, introduce a different framework, and present you with choices and alternatives. I am talking about combining principles from multiple fields and about letting ideas from a totally different context flow freely by starting a new task while you’re brain is still, at least partly, munching on that other task that you’ve just abandoned. This is where interruptions come in more than handy: interruptions can take your thinking out of confinement, whether you are working on solving a personnel issue, writing a business plan, editing a blog post, reflecting on your proposal for a new client or any other activity. Interruptions can and often will take you out of your box, they will unlock your creativity, they will take you out of your limitations and out of your jammed thinking, and they will help you exploit possibilities in ways that are novel and often effective. Ever experienced this ‘aha’ moment where you found a way out off a difficult situation while you were not even working on solving the problem, or that’s what you thought, because the subconscious processes apparently did continue their work?
Before you tune out: Yes, it is a fact of life that interruptions can seriously impede productivity. Sometimes it’s important to marinade in your own thoughts and to work on a task un-interrupted and with full focus even if it is merely because of a deadline. Yes, social media, technological tools, co-workers and bosses, spouses and pets, all of the above and much more can cause unwanted interruptions. So go cold-turkey and turn off your smart phone, close your door, resist whatever is more interesting or satisfying than what you’re working on and do whatever you need to do. Increase your awareness of those instances where you allow or seek out interruptions to postpone, procrastinate, and flee from tasks for whatever reason. Having said all this, I urge you to realize that there are times when interruptions will help you entertain novel perspectives, find new ways of seeing old issues, provide you with energy, and help you create approaches or solutions that might not be so obvious but that can turn out to be very effective.
To conclude: Self-interruption is a result of your own habit or routine, and of your individual state and choices this day, this moment. Your motives for seeking or allowing these interruptions is key to deciding whether they are useful interruptions or not. Quite a bit of your daily interruptions is within your span of control – don’t waste it! Increase your awareness of the amount and kind of interruptions as well as what prompted them and what they resulted in. Of course you aim to minimize the (self) interruptions that seem to serve no positive purpose. You also want to differentiate them from useful (self) interruptions that can steer you in directions you otherwise might not go. Use your awareness to, one moment regain focus and the next moment benefit more fully from the creative process that can result from (self) interruptions. Establish effective habits and procedures to protect yourself from the ever growing amount of information coming your way and from other people interrupting your focus, and at the same time know when and how to use the different levels of energy and the new topics and insights that people bring to your awareness when they walk into your office, text you, tweet you, or call you. And, maybe most importantly: Remain honest. It’s one thing to deal with people who interrupt you; it’s another thing to deal with your own tendency to interrupt and deceive yourself.
Any thoughts, experiences, ideas you want to share?