Time management is continually thwarted by interruptions. At work you find that that you are continually bothered to answer emails, deal with meetings and handle timewasters. Time management courses repeatedly reiterate how you must focus on the real work and how interruptions should be avoided so that you can spend quality time doing what really needs to be done. Many people find these daily challenges of repeated interruptions get in the way of them doing the real work that they need to get done… or do they? Douglas R Conant has another answer to this problem.
In a recent article published on the Harvard Business Review by Douglas R Conant (2014) says: “These thousands of little interruptions aren’t keeping you from the work, they are the work”.
This is an innovative new way of thinking and it certainly goes against a lot of modern time management theory which tells you not to bother looking at emails more than once or twice a day because they are time wasters! However, there is certainly a very good degree of truth in what Conant says. In fact, he goes so far as to argue that these very interruptions provide people with opportunities to solve problems in an impactful manner, provide clarity and deal with issues with insight and enthusiasm. They provide opportunities to demonstrate real leadership in organisations. Instead of looking at these interruptions in a negative way, Conant prefers to see them as what he calls “touchpoints” that are not distractions, but rather are opportunities. These opportunities should be snatched up and leveraged for success, both personal and organisational.
All of this sounds easier said than done and you may be just a little bit cynical given years of being told how interruptions are a big waste of your time and how you should avoid them at all costs. However, Conant is compelling in his argument that each interruption should be looked at as a possibility. Conant explains that the way to do this is to consider whether the issue itself has relevance, and how it is important to make a decision or solve a problem relating to this interruption. In doing this Conant urges the use of empathy, and he explains that importance of the issue may be a matter of perception. The person raising it may think it is highly important, and if they do, you should also try to understand why, because this could bring an opportunity to be impactful.
In addition Conant advocates for thinking carefully before responding to a particular touchpoint as your response will be passed on quickly to all of the other people involved. It may be cited repeatedly as people go about making daily decisions. It may be used as a decision point for others who could be individuals in your own team, your boss and anyone that has some responsibility to you even if they are not formally part of your team. Conant explains that many people can be influenced or affected by the way in which you respond to interruptions, even if they are not present, so considering your actions and words carefully is of great importance.
As a result, Conant argues that instead of being negative about an interruption you can use it as an opportunity to “spread infectious positive energy exponentially throughout the organisation”. What a great idea that is… and how much better than snapping at someone and giving them an ill thought out answer because they interrupted you from doing the so called “real work”. Instead by taking the time out to give people the help that they need you can listen to what people have to say and help provide direction and solutions that are useful to that person and others.
Of course, some interruptions are still interruptions. Being asked what your opinion is on who will win the latest reality TV show, or what you think about the latest big drama on a popular soap opera is certainly a waste of your time. But dealing with those everyday interruptions that you always thought were noise rather than the “real work” can help to define your career and demonstrate you to be an insightful and helpful individual that adds value in the organisation. Isn’t that the true purpose of real work?
Paula Newton is a business writer, editor and management consultant with extensive experience writing and consulting for both start-ups and long established companies. She has ten years management and leadership experience gained at BSkyB in London and Viva Travel Guides in Quito, Ecuador, giving her a depth of insight into innovation in international business. With an MBA from the University of Hull and many years of experience running her own business consultancy, Paula’s background allows her to connect with a diverse range of clients, including cutting edge technology and web-based start-ups but also multinationals in need of assistance. Paula has played a defining role in shaping organizational strategy for a wide range of different organizations, including for-profit, NGOs and charities. Paula has also served on the Board of Directors for the South American Explorers Club in Quito, Ecuador.