People think I am rude: Interruptions, Knowledge Work, and Ladders

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Some people think I am rude. But I will get back to that.

It was a chilly fall day, a rare event in Texas. I was on the very top of a 20-foot extension ladder. In one hand I was holding one end of a six-foot long piece of Hardie Plank trim. In the other hand, I was holding a hammer and a nail. I had already tacked one end of the trim and just needed to tack the other end. I could then let go of it and finish nailing it in. As I was trying to juggle everything into place for one good hammer strike, I heard, coming from inside the house, that oft-repeated call, “Daaaaaaaad!”

“I’m a little busy right now,” I yelled back.

“I need you to come here! Right now! It’s important!” yelled the boy.

Assuming there must be blood involved, I tried to gracefully extricate myself from the project. I thought I might try to quickly bang the nail in. Because I was rushing, I dropped it. Then I dropped the trim which caused the nail at the other end to pull out, sending the whole thing crashing down. I tried to catch it and dropped my hammer.

I climbed down the ladder and went inside. I wish I could remember what that urgent call was about exactly. I am pretty sure it had something to do with one brother stealing a video game remote from another brother. No one was injured. No one was in peril. There was no emergency. However, I still had to start over, hanging that piece of trim.

This is an often repeated sequence at my house. It is never funny at the moment but it is a little funny looking back. Although I try to help my kids learn to grasp priorities, I can’t really blame them for interrupting me.

I share this story as a way to think about interruptions. When we see someone doing physical labor, it should be pretty obvious that interrupting them will cause them a significant delay. (At least it should be obvious – it certainly is not obvious to little boys.) It is less obvious when you are dealing with knowledge workers.

“Knowledge Worker” is a term coined by Peter Drucker and it refers to a class of workers who, instead of producing things, develop and use knowledge and information. Software engineers, academics, scientists, and physicians fall into this category. I would argue that pastors do as well.

I could spend a few posts talking about the seismic shifts in work that are continuing to happen across the world. However, for the point of this post, let’s just think of knowledge workers as people who think for a living. Instead of producing tangible, physical, objects, their product is ideas, knowledge, synthesis, and outcomes.

IMG_0633-354It is much harder to determine whether or not a knowledge worker is actually working. There isn’t some loud machine running. They aren’t on a ladder. They aren’t holding anything, except maybe a book or a mouse.

In fact, it is incredibly likely that if you walk in on knowledge worker hard at work, she might be just sitting, seemingly staring into space. But she is hard at work, figuring something out, creating something, or developing a new idea

The power of the interruption is much less obvious with knowledge workers, but it is just as impactful.

When someone walks into the office of a knowledge worker and says, “Got a minute?” they may be doing the equivalent of calling them down off a ladder with hammer, nails, and wood in hand.

The power of the interruption is much less obvious with knowledge workers, but it is just as impactful.

Tasks like writing, creating, or just “figuring something out,” often take long periods of concentration. When that “flow” gets interrupted, the creator has two options:

  1. Stop what they are doing, knowing they will likely need to start over from the beginning.
  2. Try to hold that thought, idea, or process in their brains until they can get back to it.

Option #2 is rarely effective, and it feels somewhat like holding a big rock over your head while talking to someone.

So, some people think I am rude, or anti-social. Sometimes my door is closed. Sometimes I am working offsite. Sometimes I have my headphones on with no sound coming out. I am working on something, you just can’t see it.

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