Getting in too-much touch (interruption is not collaboration)

Getting in too-much touch (interruption is not collaboration).

I just got back from the Collaborative Technologies Conference in Boston. I was there to talk about some of the ideas behind how we collaborate at 37signals. You can download a PDF of my slides. They’re spartan so they may not make a whole lot of sense unless you were there, but I said I’d post them for everyone at the conference so here they are. [UPDATE]: Here’s a video of my talk.

I had a chance to listen to a few other speakers, and talk to some folks in the hallway before and after my talk, and there was one thing I kept hearing that troubled me: Technology is making it easier and easier to interrupt people — both virtually and physically. Well, they used “collaborate,” I’m using “interrupt.”

Certain software vendors are hailing the promise of “always-on location based awareness.” They suggest that knowing where everyone is all the time (at the office, in the car, on the floor above you, in the building next door, on the road, etc.) and being able to get in touch with anyone anywhere whenever is good for productivity. I’m not so sure.

The way I see it, interruption is being mistaken for collaboration. The are drastically different things. Interruption is productivity’s biggest enemy. It sounds counterintuitive to many, but we should be working harder on staying apart and less on getting in touch too much. A healthy dose of physical and virtual distance is a good thing. If we want to be highly productive we need more alone time.

Being productive isn’t something that just happens. You don’t just sit down and be productive. Real productivity takes time. It’s a process. You make your way into it. Sometimes it takes 15 minutes or a half hour or an hour or more to really get in that zone. And when you’re in that zone you are actually getting real work done. But once you get knocked out of that zone it takes a real toll on you. You go from highly productive to annoyed. And all these new methods of interruption, and the ability of anyone to find you any time, well, I think they’re just making it easier to indirectly annoy people. I don’t have research to back this up, it’s just a gut feeling.

There are different degrees of interruption too. Passive interruption such as an IM or an email can be ignored until you’re ready to deal with it. But active interruption such as when someone physically comes over and taps you on the shoulder, or calls you into a physical meeting, well, that kind of interruption kills the “productivity buzz.” And once that buzz is killed, it takes a while to get that buzz back.

So before you keep trying to keep in touch too much, think about stepping back and being quiet for a while. You’ll be surprised at how much more work you, and the person you were about to interrupt, will get done.  [Signal vs. Noise]

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