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Updated: May 27

Two work colleagues discussing

I see your name right there on my chat window. I have a question. All I have to do is click on your name and ask it. How easy is that? What could possibly be the problem?

Letters were so carefully crafted back when horses delivered the mail. There were infrequent pickups and infrequent deliveries. And no cut & paste. So every thought was crafted. Because it had to be.

Now we can reach anyone any time, and here’s the problem: not every issue requires immediate action.

  • What is an appropriate interruption for a brain surgeon who is operating on a patient?

  • What about a pilot maneuvering a plane in bad weather?

Well, you’d probably not want to bug those folks because you’d say they are “busy” – yet knowledge workers don’t usually get the same deference. “Oh hey, you there? Gotta question about that email I sent yesterday…”

So, what’s an appropriate interruption?  First, decide if it requires synchronous or asynchronous response. Asynchronous would be anything you can respond to later. Anything email-able is asynchronous. A phone call is synchronous. Leaving and listening to voicemail is asynchronous.

Here’s where people get into trouble: one person considers the item synchronous, the other considers it asynchronous.

Mary: did you ever get back to that customer about the delivery?

Joe: not yet, still on my list.

Mary: when can you do it?

Joe: I’m on the phone right now, it’s on my list for later.

Mary got her answer. But Joe got interrupted. And probably a bit pissed. Because it’s still on his list. And Mary could have emailed to ask about it. Perhaps she emailed because she never heard back from Joe. Maybe that’s her fault for not asking for him to acknowledge a due date. Maybe it’s his for not replying to her. Maybe she fears that emailing again will yield a similar non-result. These interactions happen thousands of times a day in businesses around the world. People using the wrong medium because it’s “easy” – because it’s less work for one person, even though it might be more work for the other.

Information workers under the age of 35 give out their mobile numbers without hesitation. Older employees reserve it for a considered few. Calling some people at home at 7pm is regarded as extraordinarily rude. Calling others at home is impossible because they have no “home” number. One person doesn’t mind getting interrupted. The other person does. There’s no obvious recipe, and not everyone will feel comfortable saying “hey, that’s an interruption that bugs me” – so they’ll just either ignore it (not helpful), or give a terse answer (not helpful), or answer and silently resent the other party (not helpful).

Here’s a small fix: ask yourself, can it wait? Can it be handled asynchronously? Start there. Email instead of instant messaging. Leave a voicemail instead of calling them directly.

This works in-person as well. Just because the person is “at their desk” doesn’t mean “all interruptions welcome” – workers in large companies use Outlook to schedule every minute of their day. This works less effectively with small businesses, but regardless of your company size, with constant interruptions, your high-producing staff will take a hit on their “flow state percentage” (thanks Forbes).

Yes, I know my screen name is right there and you can click on it and ask me a question. Try emailing instead. But hey, you’re RIGHT there, why can’t I ask you? Or you just walked by my desk (even if it does look like you’re wanting to use the restroom).

Because I’m busy. If I didn’t respond to your first email and I’m on instant messenger, try this: email me again.


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