I was reading an article on the guardian website the other day: Leave me alone… which talked about how corrosive interruptions are to modern life. My job is at the extreme end of this as I’ll often have three people vying for me to talk to them all at the same time standing around my desk while I’m trying to do something for myself. The average according to the article seems to be that most people are interrupted every three minutes which is pretty bad, but my question is about how many of these interruptions are things that we actually have to deal with now?
In the situation I described above you have to respond. Somebody has wandered over into your space and asked you a question. It’s the same thing with a phone call. If you don’t answer then the other person won’t go away (especially if you don’t have voicemail). But what about a text or e-mail? Or a reminder in Outlook. All of these make noises and stuff but then we’ve chosen that they do. None of these things actually have to be dealt with instantly. We can respond when we want to respond. We could put them all on silent. And then remember to look at a scheduled time (but without a popup reminder of when this scheduled time is how would you remember)?
The reason we don’t have all of these things on silent is that we like to be interrupted sometimes. And sometimes the thing interrupting us is important enough that it should be considered more important than what we’re doing. We kind of need a way of being able to judge where that importance level goes. The only problem is that you need a two way level of priority because if we left it up to the people who want us to do stuff for them then it would always be level 1 priority.
I’m not sure how it would be organised, but it would be something like this. You want to be able to rank people by a level of how much you know them, so junk mail and cold callers have a rank of zero, firms that you have signed up to deal with have a rank of one. Above that you have colleagues and then friends and so on up until you get to say your partner right at the top. Then each of the people sending you stuff can add a priority level to the stuff they are doing and if they don’t set anything then it defaults to zero.
We already have the capability for receiving e-mail. We could set complicated rules and automatically downgrade anyone who didn’t set an importance level to the e-mail that they were sending (if they don’t care enough to assign an importance level then they aren’t important enough to listen to). But what about phone calls? What about people just walking up to you and not noticing that you’re in the middle of something?
Perhaps the only solution is the one suggested at the end of the article… I’m off to saw off a bit of all of my chair legs. Oh wait a minute. Sadly it turns out that I work in an office in the modern world and all of the chairs have wheels on the bottom.