The value of an interruption

One way to make American great again is to take a new view of interruptions. We have way too much stagnant thinking in this here nation. Until your recirculated thoughts have been interrupted, you don’t know what you’re missing.

My work in human memory took a strange turn 20-some years ago when I began developing a method of interrupting people in order to help them escape their mental ruts. The result was always instantaneous and amazing.

Long before I used the method with business people, I tested and refined it in the classroom with a few thousand individuals of every age who were assigned demanding tasks that consumed every bit of their attention. Whether four years old or sixty, these scholastic guinea pigs would often get stuck in a loop of repeating a mistake. Once they were in the loop, I could correct them as many times as I wanted and they still could not get the wrong response out of their heads.

Correcting didn’t work. But one little piece of information was on my side — I knew they knew the correct response and that the wrong one was hogging their attention. In other words, the wrong response was stuck in their working memory, the space we use for juggling and considering information.

When we’re juggling the same old information, our performance declines if a task requires decisions. Most jobs require some degree of alertness, but the very power of human memory gets in our way if our thoughts are not interrupted occasionally. The problem is that we memorize knowledge and procedures and then shift into autopilot, giving a repetitive task very little of our attention. On the other hand, an emotion such as anxiety can devour so much of our attention that we cannot process new information.

No matter what the stumbling block was, I found that a well-placed interruption would knock it right out of the person’s head and then performance would soar. An effective interruption could last for a split second or several seconds, depending on the occasion.

I observed the same beneficial effect when applying the method to business people who couldn’t get past what seemed like insurmountable walls to them. Their minds were landfills of opinions and assumptions. Erroneous perspectives guided their decisions and feelings without their realizing it.

The breakthroughs came exactly the way they did in the classroom – by interrupting recirculated thinking. But interrupting does not work on business people who are committed to the opinions that get in their way or on people who consider themselves self-sufficient. These folks believe they’ll get the answers on their own. The information is in fact inside their own heads, but the distance between them and their brains can be measured in dollars and decades. These people die before they find the answers that could be shaken loose with gentle interruptions that insult their egos.

An interruption can turn a life around. The result I’ve witnessed most is that it energizes people with an awareness of their own capabilities. Once they get out of autopilot mode, their thinking and performance ramp up.

When you’ve watched this thousands of times, as I have, it changes your view of human potential and how we excel. Welcome a certain number of interruptions. Think of them as stones tossed into a stagnant mental pond. Reconsider your thinking and get on with being great again.

Max T. Russell of New Palestine writes for the international business intelligence community. You can contact him via his website,