Human Interrupt Handling

Joel (On Software) got me into this thread of thinking. He interrupted me, while I was doing something else (I forgot) and instead of picking up what I was doing, I started writing today’s blog. And it may even get finished unless something else distracts me and I don’t return to this one. Or get a depression in the meanwhile.

Joel’s blog lead into an article in the New York Times about research into how we are coping with excessive interruptions during “normal” work. Highly interesting, read it.

In this article, Gloria Mark discusses how we don’t seem to handle interruptions in an orderly manner. That is, if we are interrupted during task “A” to do task “B”, we don’t always return to “A” after finishing “B”, but return to “C” (if we did some of “C” before) or go on to start a new task “D”. It’s not even round-robin, it’s pure chaos.

Now, I’m not sure this is entirely right all on its own, so to speak. When you look at patients with depression, you see that disorderly interrupt handling is a very early sign of depression. It is so early, in fact, that it is hard to see it as an abnormality. When I used to do house calls, and I came into a home where there were buckets and brooms all over the place, I knew what was going on. The woman in the house starts cleaning, gets distracted by the door or the phone, starts cleaning in another spot, gets distracted, etc… I saw in that an early sign of depression and deeper questioning always proved me right.

Another early sign of depression is that you get highly irritated by interruptions and you say to yourself (or scream out in public) that if you could “only be left alone a while, you could get this f*cking job done, no problem”. And you start blaming the phone, the boss, the coworkers and everyone else for distracting you all the time.

So, I think Gloria Mark should somehow take the “depression status” of the subjects into account when doing her studies. The problem is, does anyone know how to do that? I certainly don’t. But I think we really have to find a way.

Now, you could speculate that the current interrupt-intensive work situation may worsen a tendency to depression in people. It may even cause it, who knows? I’d dearly love to see some investigations into this possibility.