Lesson Learned: Pardon the Interruption

“Excuse me, may I interrupt? I’m sorry to bother you, but….” How often do you hear that? How often do you hear yourself saying that? Let’s face it, distractions and interruptions are a common part of our everyday life. There’s been many an article written about workplace distractions and not surprisingly, the leading workplace distractors that consistently top the list are: noisy/loud co-workers, chatty co-workers, a micro—managing boss, emails and phone calls. Surfing the web or checking Facebook are seen as work distractions but these are typically self-distracting activities.

One study stated, “Office workers are interrupted—or self-interrupt—roughly every three minutes, with numerous distractions coming in both digital and human forms. Once thrown off track, it can take some 23 minutes for a worker to return to the original task”

Distractions are typically viewed negatively, often because they stop us from being productive, and that stresses us, making us even more unproductive. But, haven’t we all been grateful for the “welcome distraction”, one that removes that stress or changes our situation, if only for a short time? Another study found that “distractions, such as surfing the Web, can help increase creativity and reduce workplace monotony, which may help boost alertness”. I offer to you that learning can be – and maybe even should be – one of those welcome distractions.

Learning – particularly at your moment of need – can energize you and increase your productivity. You’ve heard the expression “use it or lose it”; I’m talking about skills and knowledge (although this may apply to your remaining vacation days as well). That’s because “the brain actually restructures itself based on how we use it most often, and those structural changes affect our performance. We get better at skills that we practice and we lose skills that we neglect. When it comes to learning, “use it or lose it” is very real.”

I think a lot about learning. I think it's in my DNA. And recently I’ve been thinking about how to turn those distractions into learning – learning that will have a positive impact on my work, energy and productivity. Here’s what I’ve come up with:

Conversational Learning. This is where I learn from the interruption. Often I am the “interrupter” where I am seeking help or information, asking “How do I do this?” or “How do I “Can I get your input on this?” S/he responds. I learn. That might be obvious. Flip it around – someone seeks my input or asks for my help. When I try to understand her/his need (“the why?”) then I often learn something too, either about a new project, technical functionality, or a problem that I might later encounter.

Social Learning. This is Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, etc. There is a proliferation of useful content on social channels – from how to videos to new product information to industry news. Social channels are increasingly becoming a leading source of how we learn in small and timely bits.

Private communities that focus on a specific industry or profession, like Bentley Communities, I think straddle the line between conversational and social learning as communities broaden the network of “colleagues” that I can seek help or get input from. No matter which side you come down on, there’s no denying engaging with others who understand where you’re coming from can be tremendously energizing and productive.

Online Learning. I’m using online learning to mean accessing more formal channels such as company websites, industry publications, online seminars, email newsletters, etc. For me, these are the learning opportunities that pile up in my inbox – the “I’ll look at that later” stuff. When I find myself distracted, “later” becomes “now”– I’m actively engaged, the brain cells are firing in a new direction, and often I learn something that gets me back on track.

Mobile Learning. I’m referring specifically to mobile apps as they tend to have specific and limited functionality relative to the full website. Their mobility and accessibility make them a valuable learning tool. Many professional credentialing organizations have study apps. Outside of work I volunteer as an EMT, and have quizzed myself with national nursing exam study apps. I don’t pass those exams, sometimes I don't even know what they're talking about, but that’s not the point; the point is I learn something that will help me be a better EMT or a more interesting conversationalist. Even if you’re not planning to earn the credential, reviewing questions and self-testing will definitely build knowledge. By the way, did you know Bentley offers a LEARN app for iPad?

So the next time you find yourself distracted, try learning from it. As Benjamin Franklin said, “An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest.”

If you’ve got other ideas or a story on how you’ve turned a distraction into learning, I'd love to hear it.



“Workplace Distractions: Here's Why You Won't Finish This Article” by Rachel Emma Silverman. The Wall Street Journal, December 11, 2012

“Smarten Up! Three Facts About the Learning Brain” by Carrie Gajowski. Scientific Learning, The Science of Learning Blog. March 11, 2014


P.S. Like Bentley Systems on Facebook or follow @BentleySystems on Twitter for more social learning.

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