There are only two kinds of interruptions. The first is the good interruptions, those endearing surprises that jump out at us on the path of life, such as when my husband pokes his head into my study and says “There’s a stork in the birdbath, come quick.” (He’s obviously not a birder.) The second is the unwanted and unsavory intrusions on our mental flow, such as the cold call from the telemarketer selling corduroy frying pans. Although quite different from one another, both kinds of interruptions will successfully murder genius.
As we know, humans only use a limited percentage of our full brain capacity. Some of us manage to use a higher percentage of brain function than others. I use most of my functioning brain to obsess about who to start each week in Fantasy Football. I blame Fantasy Football for the fact that I am not the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. I suspect that the most significant thing preventing humans from using 100% of our brains is interruptions. At least this is probably the case for women; whereas for men, of course, interruptions run second to the distraction of thinking about sex. Bad interruptions top my list of life’s aggravations along with landscaping featuring gravel, fruity air freshener, yellow post-its, weeds, cat hairballs, beets, sticky price tags on new drinking glasses that require a flamethrower for removal, and Paul Ryan.
I spend a large portion of my workday writing and this requires concentrated thought. When the phone rings, I could ignore it, but it might be a client with a question, it might be the health club calling to inform me that they are loading my diabetic husband into an ambulance because he has dangerously low blood sugar, or it might be my son calling from the grocery store to ask me to read him a recipe out of the Joy of Cooking. All of these qualify as bona fide necessary interruptions. But when it’s a scam robocall from Bridget at cardholder services with an offer to upgrade my credit line to six billion, my hair stands on end and my best thoughts flee.
I started pondering interruptions this week after a conversation I had with my son the web developer (the same one who calls me to read out recipes to him while he’s shopping). He sent me the link to an article about why even a seemingly benign interruption can destroy the productivity of a web developer. Here is the link to the article if you want to read more. The gist of the article is that there are two types of deadly interruptions that ruin productivity for web developers: the random interruption (like Bridget) or the planned interruption (like a staff meeting). A lot of what web developers do is in their heads. I identify with this since it’s the same for writers. Web developers (like writers) must keep a football-stadium-sized volume of information in their heads at once in order to rearrange it and organize it and sort through it. An interruption can collapse the entire stadium into a giant dribble of a pancake. The article talks about web developers building a “mental model” and how interruptions destroy the model. It can often take an hour or more to get back to that point in the construction of the mental model, depending on how invested in it the web developer was at the time of the interruption. Random interruptions (particularly a string of them) can be so disruptive to this process that they can ruin a full day’s work. Planned interruptions can also be very destructive to web developers depending on scheduling. The article explains that web developers generally need about two hours of uninterrupted time to complete a standard increment of work (to implement that model they are holding in their head). So if they have to attend a meeting that starts an hour after they arrive at work or an hour after lunch, even though they can plan for it, the meeting can make it impossible for them to effectively utilize the hour preceding the meeting because they need two hours of uninterrupted time. As a writer, I fully identify with this construct. It leads me to contemplate how managers can so easily diminish the productivity of the doers they manage when they don’t fully understand the nature of the work that the doers do. Lacking a grasp of this, they inadvertently cause destruction, havoc, frustrational aimless web surfing, and the melting of the polar ice caps.
Interruptions are perhaps the greatest challenge facing moms. Children, by definition, are interruptions. Good interruptions of course; but interruptions nonetheless. When my children were young and I had a nine-to-five office job, I would sometimes experience those nights when my slumber was so hopelessly interrupted that I wasn’t fit the next day for anything more complex than sharpening pushpins. As teenagers, my children had a knack for making popcorn in the microwave in the kitchen (next to my bedroom) just when I was in the process of attempting to fall asleep. I could salvage a night’s sleep with one interruption, but nighttime interruptions seemed to stampede in herds. By way of example, first one of the children would wake me up because he had a nightmare and I would lie down with him in his bed until he fell asleep again. No sooner would I have returned to my bed and started to drift off to sleep when the battery in the smoke detector in the kitchen would go belly-up and it would begin beeping. So I would have to climb onto a chair and remove the battery. After that I would lie awake for another hour trying to calm down. When I finally began to drift off again, another child would wake me up because he heard a ghost in the tree outside his window. We would tiptoe down the hall together to investigate and I would discover an owl perched in the tree by his window hooting. The hooting sounded like a ghost to my small child. I would don my boots and bathrobe and go outside with a flashlight to try to flush out the owl. When that didn’t work, I would put my son in his boots and take him outside to show him the owl before settling him back in his bed. By then I would be desperate to get in a few winks before dawn. I would just have fallen asleep when a skunk would spray in the driveway, waking me up with the stench. I often wondered why all these things would happen in the same night. The real kicker to all this is that my husband sleeps like someone hit him in the head with a frying pan. So he would snooze blissfully through all interruptions, especially if he had a calming jumbo mocha espresso right before bed to relax him. Go figure.
Children are the supreme interrupters. Mine know that they have priority over anything else I could possibly be doing. “Yes dear, I’m giving my neighbor mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, but as soon as I save his life I’ll see if I still have your kaleidoscope stored in the garage, love you sweetie, will call you back.” Once my son called me from high school in a panic because his chapstick had broken. I talked him down. All of my children have interrupted me with phone calls to ask me to look up their checking account number for them. I am information central. Before Smart Phones, they would call me to have me google things for them, like what time the movie at their local cinema started, where was the nearest Jewish deli with authentic bagels, how much does it cost to fly to Vegas, what happens if you put olives in au gratin potatoes, and what will the weather be like at Newport Beach on Thursday. All of these questions obviously required an immediate answer. When I was on a retreat with a group of women friends at a remote beachside condo, my daughter called in a crisis. While my friends went for a sunset walk on the beach, I played therapist until my daughter figured out how to handle her situation. One peaceful Saturday morning while I was sipping a delicious decaf and writing my blog, my youngest son called because he had somehow tumbled out of bed, tripped (probably on clothing, shoes, soccer balls, musical instruments, collapsible clothing hamper, coffee mugs, blunt objects, raccoons, waffle iron, etc. sprawled across his floor), and fell into a mirror leaning against his wall, breaking the mirror, and cutting his leg. He wanted me to help him find an emergency room near his house in Oakland. Did I mention he was bleeding? It was a small cut and we found an ER as well as someone to take him there. Now what was I saying?
We live in a supremely interrupting world. I don’t give people my cell phone number precisely because of my aversion to bad interruptions. I don’t want people to have the ability to call me when I am in the checkout line at the Coop, going for my daily walk (seriously, why do people bother to go for a walk in the woods while talking on their cell phone?), driving, thinking, making a pie crust, welding a spaceship, or searching in the garage for a kaleidoscope. Actually, even if they had my number, people couldn’t call me because I rarely turn my cell phone on.
There are many interruptions on beyond phone calls to jar me out of my thoughts when I am trying to string words together to actually write something of importance. The neighborhood bully tomcat saunters into my yard and I have to run around chasing cats so he doesn’t beat up my girls and cost me a fortune at the vet. I have meetings scheduled when I would prefer to be writing. The power goes out. My obsessed neighbor who must control every wisp of nature in his half-acre yard spends two hours running his gas-powered leaf blower, which sounds like Apollo 13 landing in his yard. The refrigerator stops working in the middle of July and I have to move all the frozen food to the freezer in the garage (and, unfortunately, I have to eat all the ice cream, so sad). My oldest needs me to find a copy of her birth certificate, scan it, and email it to her by noon. My middle one needs me to run interference for a broken chapstick. My youngest trips over a turtle and sprains his eyebrow.
Honestly, as a mom, I don’t mind those interruptions from my children so much, no matter how ridiculous. I can live with them. Sometimes they make for a good story. The bad interruptions, which I hate, are stuff like the scam artist who calls me, interrupting my flow, so he can try to convince me that my computer has been hacked and he is going to unhack it if I just give him my bank account numbers and all my passwords, the perky lady conducting an opinion survey on the relevance of safety pins, or (and these are the worst) the call to inform me that I am eligible for an upgrade to my weed-whacker and someone will be with me shortly but for now I am on hold listening to Yanni perform a mellow version of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs,” and my wait time is twenty minutes but whoa didn’t they call me so why am I on hold? Wha-huh? I hang up. What was I saying?
The next time I sneak off to the beach without telling anyone where I went, you will understand why. Uninterrupted time to meditate, reflect, contemplate, and, dearest of all in Amy’s world, to write. Sweet.