Interruption Science

One of my favorite articles in the New York Times ever was one on Interruption Science, how we get sucked off task, how to get back on task, and what kind of distractions are “best” to get out attention when they’re critically important. A quote from the article:

Mary Czerwinski first confronted this question while working, oddly enough, in outer space. She is one of the world’s leading experts in interruption science, and she was hired in 1989 by Lockheed to help NASA design the information systems for the International Space Station. NASA had a problem: how do you deliver an interruption to a busy astronaut? On the space station, astronauts must attend to dozens of experiments while also monitoring the station’s warning systems for potentially fatal mechanical errors. NASA wanted to ensure that its warnings were perfectly tuned to the human attention span: if a warning was too distracting, it could throw off the astronauts and cause them to mess up million-dollar experiments. But if the warnings were too subtle and unobtrusive, they might go unnoticed, which would be even worse. The NASA engineers needed something that would split the difference.

So Interruption Science is about asking what’s the perfect “loudness” of a distraction to get your attention when you need to know something, versus the day to day background noise? What’s the perfect disruption?

There are times I need to concentrate and get deeply involved in a project before I can move on to the next- the times I have to turn off all outside distractions except for true emergencies.   Then there’s the working, but taking calls and doing a couple things at once works well.  Then there’s times I seem to be skipping across the surface of everything I need to do, not making headway on anything, due to internal and external distractions that pull my brain off course and down beautiful, but no-productive pathways.

I find that I need to triage my attention.  Sometimes lists of Urgent to-do’s helps.  Sometimes the mental rolodex just keeps flagging stuff, and I begin to feel overwhelmed with it all, not sure where to start, or what the best time management strategy is.  Should it be doing the hardest thing first?  Doing the most fun thing first is tempting, but then the dread of the hard stuff gets pushed farther and farther to the back, making procrastination until urgency inevitable.

What do you use to manage your time better?  Which interruptions hit that sweet spot, of letting you know there’s something you need to deal with, but give you a sense of the priority at the same time?  How do you prioritize things, and are you always good at it?  What advice can you offer?

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