...this path, this road that is one perfect straight line even if it goes around the world through heat and fog and rain and snow and it’s my life I keep thinking. It’s my life.
Deborah Keenen, from “Small History”
Life is what happens when we’re busy making other plans.
A number of years ago I was a nursing supervisor and while I loved my work, one of the challenges was dealing with interruptions. It was difficult to find blocks of time to get my work done. It was only when I realized that the interruptions were my work (at least in part) that I was able to begin managing my time more effectively. It was a reminder that not all interruptions are a bad thing. The challenge though, is that the scale of interruptions has increased significantly and it not only feels like there are more interruptions, but that they come in so many different forms. It may be splitting hairs but I distinguish interruptions from distractions- those pesky nuisances (e.g. checking our phones, the ping of another e-mail or text or twitter feed; the general bombardment of urban noise) that compete for our attention on a daily business. A topic for another day!
Interruptions are a fact of life. I wish it wasn’t so but it is and women who have managed jobs, families and homes know this all too well. Anyone who has spent any time with children (of all ages) or worked in a hectic office knows the day is replete with one interruption after another. Every day is about living out a series of contingencies rather than “the plan”. The difficult part is that we end up never being able to finish – or start- something that is important. Interruptions are by definition an intrusion into what we are doing and they can divert us. While some interruptions can be useful reminders of things we need to attend to, they can also throw us off course. And that can be frustrating if we are trying to achieve something or figure out what we want to do.
I have traditionally seen interruptions as something to be managed in order to get back to the “real” or important thing I was doing. It may be something minor such as someone asking a quick question or the internet suddenly stops working. Other interruptions pose a disruption to a long term plan – the job we didn’t get but wanted; looking after a family member unexpectedly for a period of time; not being able to return to school when we had planned to go; a relationship that was connected to our life dreams that ends unexpectedly. In short: plans of any kind foiled because of an interruption.
But perhaps a process of discernment is called for. Not all interruptions are created equal. To be sure, interruptions can get out of control and some clearly need to be managed. Regardless, a detour can take us on an adventure and this is fortuitous. Life has a way of leading us where we need to be even if we didn’t plan on it. In other words, interruptions are opportunities in disguise- a particularly advantageous turn of events for those of us trying to figure out what to do in our lives. We have all had interruptions that provided us with needed information, a fuller picture of an issue, or a change in direction to help us look at something in a different way. The element of surprise is at play when we are presented with something we did not expect: getting lost in a new city and discovering a wonderful neighbourhood; being late due to an interruption and then bumping into someone we need to meet quite by chance; responding to questions from a family member that cause us to think more deeply about what is really being asked. Note that the synonyms for interruption include: gap; interval; pause; or hiatus. A chance to break the pattern we are in the midst of and look at a new possibility.
Sometimes getting off track is a good thing. A life course is rarely a straight line, even though we have been socialized to believe it so. But how do we determine what to pay attention to and what to dismiss? We have to deal with interruptions and we need to ensure we have the time to take action on the important things in our life. Like so many things, the best way to deal with interruptions may be to be mindful about them and trust our gut. It’s a dance and it’s a practice- one I am continually working on. We either need to deal with the interruption and move on; ignore it (which may have consequences); or see what happens and prepare to be surprised- otherwise known as going with the flow. Maybe there’s a pattern at work. Maybe we need to observe what happens after we have been interrupted. Who knows?
Regardless of what we are doing, life happens. And in the meantime, pay attention to the interruptions as we travel the path we have chosen- even if it takes us around the world through heat and fog and rain and snow.