Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Managing interruptions

There is no debate that interruptions and frequent context switches significantly affect productivity. This is especially true of the programming activities that require high levels of concentration.

On the other hand interruptions are unavoidable fact of modern working environments. Emails, instant messages, phone and old-fashioned knocks on the door are present everywhere. Furthermore, people in managerial positions are interrupted constantly (I read somewhere that statistically it’s something like every 5 minutes). Some people with high frequency of interruptions simply resign from the usual focused effort and work on “interrupt-basis” giving up on any serious technical work such as code development or even code-review (which also requires high level of concentration).

So what’s a tech-lead or low-level manager to do in order to optimize his time while still being responsive to the needs and requests of others?

So far I’ve discovered two ways of dealing with this major problem:
  1. Minimize interruptions where possible (what a revolutionary idea…)
  2. Combine interruptions and handle them in batches
Minimize interruptions where possible.
Sometimes people get “too connected”. They allow other people to constantly come to them with questions, send instant messages, etc. In such cases it’s important to encourage people to interrupt you only when they can’t find an answer by themselves. If they do otherwise, point out the way by which they could handle the problem themselves.

As for the Instant Messaging, I got completely off it (call me crazy). The problem with instant messaging is that it’s way too easy to communicate and interrupt. People don’t even have to leave their comfortable chairs. That tricks people into abusing the instant messaging with unreasonably simple and trivial matters.
If you’re not available on instant messenger, having to walk to your office or write you an email will force people to think twice whether they really need your help. If there are some people that absolutely require your presence on instant messenger (like your boss), create another account and don’t share it with everybody. I tried it and after initial shock people adjusted and even got used to the new mode of communication.

Combine interruptions and handle them in batches
The idea is to create slices of time when you simply ignore the interruptions. This means not responding to emails, telling people to come later, etc. One technique for that is Pomodoro. Basically you are focused for 25 minutes followed by 5-10 minutes used for handle the accumulated interrupts.
Personally, I even shut down the email client (outlook) so that I don’t see any indication of emails or alerts. I know that you can configure it but having it not run at all provides much stronger isolation from interruptions.
I installed a scheduler program that automatically launches the Outlook each half an hour. Then I spend some time dealing with the accumulated emails.
Before I implemented this technique I used to get interrupted with the emails every 3-5 minutes. I was receiving 100-130 emails per day, and these were not just dummy notifications, most of them required real attention. After I implemented this – I deal with the same amount of emails but much more efficiently and with less effort. Most importantly - it does not break my concentration.

Now using combination of these techniques I managed to significantly increase attention span and focus and therefore improve the overall productivity

In Conclusion:
Try to avoid interruptions whenever you can. Sometimes it means changing your habits and habits of people around you.
When you cannot avoid interruptions at least try to combine them and handle them in batches.

Good luck.

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