Vita Interrupta

Vita Interrupta

Mobile and Work/Life Balance

Some key issues – and how to think about them

Key Issue

It’s a joke when we think of senior executives being interrupted in all sorts of situations during the day – and night – by their mobile device. That insistent ping as a new, vital email or SMS or instant message plops into a mobile may well signal a whole series of Pavlovian responses in future years. I’ve already seen a breakfast interrupted by the same ping as a toaster announced it had delivered a hot slice of bread – and enjoyed the spectacle.

You can already see the stress it can create in a train or in a restaurant as twenty people react to one person’s device announcing its tyranny before the lucky recipient works out it is his or hers. And I think all of us rather smugly assume that the receiver can always turn a device off – or ignore the ping – and then find that we can’t actually do that.

The Latin word interruptus, usually only associated with one context, will be added to any number of words now as in my sub-heading above: life interrupted.

Significance

The significance is that the early twenty first century will be remembered as the time when interruption became not only acceptable, but expected. We have created a real benefit – you can now get hold of someone 24/7 and both business life and personal life is easier and more fulfilling as a result. You only have to think of a missing child to appreciate that. We have that comforting feeling when we don’t need to know where someone is, that we can very quickly find out if it is necessary.

The problem is that we don’t have any rules or etiquette – how could we have as for most of human existence it wasn’t a problem, an opportunity or whatever we’d like to call it. As a result, we are suffering, both as individuals and as a society. In just the same way that in polite British society you pass the port to the left – probably allowing you to keep your right hand free in case you wanted to stab your neighbour in the good old days – we need to understand how to behave.

The problem is that all of us, including me, will happily frown on weak souls allowing themselves to be interrupted, but, at the same time, all of us feel a little pride in being important enough to be required to respond at the most inconvenient moment. And more than that – there are sometimes such important messages that we will genuinely ask: why wasn’t I interrupted?

The Approach

I’m increasingly going back to basics with this question: when is interruption acceptable?

There are some parameters that we all instinctively feel are right, however. There is obviously a scale of importance: I don’t think I need to be interrupted to be told the shares rose 0.1% or that Ambrose has finished his rusk. But what are the thresholds behind this? If they rose 1% – is that important enough? If Ambrose hadn’t eaten for two days, does that change the basis?

There is also the time of day to be taken into account, as it is clearly not as acceptable to interrupt someone’s life at 3.00am. The problem is that a good deal of my colleagues are usually travelling and I don’t actually know which time zone they are on. (It has to be said that many of them similarly don’t know which time zone they are on – but that makes it harder not easier.)

The only measure I can think of is my own response, not as sender but as receiver – and that is what I mean by basics. If I were receiving this message, would I have thought it important enough to have been interrupted?

But with one vital addition.

In retrospect, perhaps as quickly as a day later, will I still have that view about the interruption’s importance?

Outcomes

I think we’re going to struggle for a long time with this – and I don’t think that we can rely on the emotional intelligence of everyone to implement the solution that I’ve outlined above and which I try to use.

I guess what we need is a new signal that we can give to the world. Instead of that rather useful word busy, we need a new way of saying we’re uninterruptible. It has to be short, sharp, snappy and easily spelt. Off Limits?

But then I can hear someone immediately saying, except when . .

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