Master the Art of Interruptibility

Since the publication of my book a month ago, I’ve been speaking at companies and communities nationwide. There’s one refrain I hear over and over: “I can’t escape. Performance demands engulf continually. I feel like I’m permanently at work!”

In my talks, I like to propose a small experiment that helps both to elucidate this problem and to think about practical solutions. Let’s try it now. It’s simple: Send your Blackberry to me at The Wharton School, and I’ll send it back to you in 3 days. (No, I will not do your emails.)

How did you feel when you read my command? Was your reaction “my left pinky before my Blackberry!!!” Or was it “no problem, take the damn thing!” There’s usually some combination of these extremes. We’re completely dependent on these amazing tools, which liberate us from time and space, freeing us to access the world anytime, anywhere — and yet we’d be happy to get rid of the stress they generate. Just as technology frees us, it keeps us tethered.

It helps to keep in mind that ours is the first generation for whom the on/off switch of work is not determined by the sun and its relation to the earth but, rather, by our own choices. I don’t know about you, but when I went to high school (Brooklyn Tech—go Engineers!), I wasn’t taught the psychological and social technologies needed to take advantage of the power inherent in digital communications tools. The fact is, we’re all learning.

To stop drowning and start swimming, you have to master what I call “the art of interruptibility”—diplomatically managing the boundaries between the different people and parts of your life. Taking control, leading your life by knowing what matters most to you and to the most important people in your life, and striving to make things better for all, requires that you let people know what they can expect from you.

Here’s an experiment to try: think of an instance in your typical week when you might deliberately choose to focus on just one thing, something important to you. It should be a person or project that is crying out for your uninterrupted attention, even for a short amount of time, but you’ve been unable to provide it because of torrent of demands coming at you. Now, think of the people or tasks that need to be halted during that short of amount of time in order for you to focus.

Finally, think through in detail how your ability to focus on this one thing will actually benefit those other people or tasks, the ones that are part of the unending stream. Yes, it’s a kind of paradox. How will the setting of an attention boundary that shuts off others actually make things better for the very people you’re shutting out? Things will be better because you’ll be more focused and energetic with them when you are attending to them.

It’s essential that you let those you’re shutting out know that you’re going to do this, even it’s just for a brief period, and that you’re doing this because you believe it’s going to benefit everyone. Enlist them in your experiment by saying something like this: “Boss, I’d like to try shutting my Blackberry off between 6 and 9 pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays for the next couple of weeks and my purpose in doing so is to improve my performance, according to your standards. I’m going to use this time to focus on some important things that I haven’t had time for — and I’ll be reducing distractions as a result. If things aren’t better after a couple of weeks in your eyes, then we’ll go back to the way things were or try something different. Are you willing to try this?”

Let me know what you discover from your experiment. But don’t expect me to respond immediately between 6 and 9 on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

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