Distractions at Work

Many jobs in technology, especially those that involve writing code, take concentration and focus. It’s often called being “in the zone.” For me, it feels like I’m inside a bubble where time goes at a different pace than the rest of the world. In fact, the rest of the world seems to disappear when I’m in the zone…until I’m interrupted, that is.

Studies have been done to measure how long it takes developers to become productive again after being interrupted, and 15 to 20 minutes is usually reported. One study from the University of California Irvine found it took an average of 23 minutes for managers to get back on task, but they became accustomed to interruptions and worked harder to make it up.

Distractions can come in many forms. In today’s world of open offices, it’s hard to concentrate. It’s difficult to tune out all the conversations. The worst is when a co-worker puts a conference call on speakerphone. Why do that? The idea behind these environments is that workers will collaborate more, but there is nowhere to hide when you need to be left alone to get some work done. These floorplans encourage chit-chat and “drive-by” requests, and some developers resort to headphones to tune out the noise.

Even sanctioned work tools like company email can be distractions when you are writing code or solving a performance problem. Author Tim Ferriss recommends spending just one hour per week on Monday morning to read email in his book The 4-Hour Workweek. In my opinion, that schedule is not going to work for most people in any IT role or those who don’t want to miss messages from managers. Maybe it makes sense to limit checking work email messages to twice a day if one hour a week is not frequent enough.

Many companies are limiting emails and instead are using tools like Slack to communicate among teams. The idea is that, if you are at your desk, you will immediately see the message and be expected to respond. In his article about how to eliminate distractions from Slack, author Joe Casabona says “Slack makes it very easy for people to take you out of the moment – it’s the virtual knock on the door and, ‘hey you have a minute?’” (And don’t get me started about the number of channels I’m expected to watch!)

Disruptions decrease productivity and ultimately hurt the bottom line. Maybe one day, someone will design the perfect office, and companies will implement “no interruption time” policies. Until then, it’s back to the headphones.

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