Controlling ‘valid disruptions’

Let’s say you’re writing an essay. At the same time, you’re using the Web. At the same time, you’ve got Facebook open. At the same time, Twitter is feeding you constant updates from the people you follow.

Is this kind of situation something you’ve experienced?

I listened to Aaron Porter talk at the Association for Learning Technology Conference (ALT-C) today. At one point he recounted his experience of completing coursework:

“I had a sense of anxiety if I didn’t know what was going on elsewhere and the ability to flick between different [computer] windows was quite reassuring.”

In a world where we increasingly work with realtime information and rolling updates, it’s difficult to feel at ease when you know you may be missing out on something.  This problem is not confined to entertainment; it reaches all aspects of life, including education.

A sense of needing to be on the pulse at all times is a recipe for information overload, or ‘filter failure’.  However, we’re not about to start working without  disruption on a regular basis.  It’s becoming a way of life.  What we call  ‘disruptions’ are often self-created.  Perhaps you could call them ‘allowed  disruptions’ or ‘valid disruptions’.

photo by jesse.millan

photo by jesse.millan

To put it another way, you have asked for Facebook on screen and you have requested updates from online services. You’d be more annoyed if someone knocked on your door every two minutes, asking questions. And you’d hate it when you’re trying to work and someone starts blasting music loudly that you don’t want to hear.

So disruptions aren’t always unwelcome, even if they are disruptive. That’s why moving away from ‘valid disruptions’ can cause such anxiety.

Does that mean a disconnected student is a more productive one? A more successful one?

No, it doesn’t. But for the same reason ‘valid disruptions’ are self-created, the number of ‘valid disruptions’ need also be self-regulated. Once it becomes too much, you’re better off limiting the flow. Letting it continue would be less productive, which cancels any use the ‘valid disruptions’ were in the first place.

It’s not easy to self-regulate when you’re used to the flow of different voices, calling for your attention. But to recognise the need to cut back when it’s difficult to cope is most of the battle won.

How do you recognise the need to reduce those disruptions?  It’s usually when one or more of these things happen:

  1. When you’re not getting enjoyment/engagement from the flows that you’re following;
  2. When it’s too difficult to keep up with the flows;
  3. When nothing else gets a look-in;
  4. When ‘long-term’ detail is sacrificed completely for instant satisfaction;
  5. When you can’t act on the flow and it just becomes noise.

So keep an eye out!

How have you fared with ‘valid disruptions’?  Are they a boon or a pain?


  1. This happens all the time when I end up somehow trying to update my blog, respond to notifications on Facebook, respond to comments on my blogs, reply Tweets, write emails and do research at the same time! And you know what? NOTHING GETS DONEEEEEE.

    Information overload is definitely a bane if you want to get work done, but definitely a boon if you so happen to be bored out of your wits.

    If you’re a busy university student like I am, you’re way better off just focusing on the task at hand, minus the Facebook tab on your browser.

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