Interrupting my interruptions

Tonight I was just settling down for a ponder on some personal stuff when I noticed an email from my brilliant brother-in-law (hi, Stephen!), recommending an article about the cost of interrupting programmers. Half an hour later, I’m blogging about it. Yes, I see the irony in the read, the blog, and the shout-out, but I just can’t help it.

I’ve heard lots of estimates of the cost of interrupting, but the research in this article seems particularly clear. I think the article oversimplifies by assuming that the problem and solution derive purely from memory, but there’s enough insight and clever thinking in the article to make it worth a read…

We’ve all known that interruption = bad. We’ve nodded our heads at this wisdom for years. Occasionally we give lip service to it. We try to clump meetings in one portion of the day, leaving blocks of time for serious thinking and work. We advise our teams to use “lighter” interruptions (“ask your question by chat/email instead of in person; it’s less disruptive…”). We decline non-essential meetings and urge others to keep their invite lists small. We buy “cones of silence” and “Do Not Disturb” signs and set them up outside the cube of the guy who’s trying to finish urgent work for an impending release.

And then we fall off the bandwagon.

At least, I do.

Hi. My name is Daniel, and I’m addicted to interruptions. :-)


Image Credit: xkcd


You would see my addiction if you walked past my desk and looked at the tabs in my browser: two for email (work, personal), two or three for calendaring, some chat sessions, a task list, several programming topics, a man page, a python reference, an interesting blog post or two, three wikipedia pages, a ticket I looked up before I ran to my last meeting, a wiki page I’m in the middle of editing, a competitor’s product portfolio, a LinkedIn discussion forum on cloud computing, a Google spreadsheet, the PDF of a resume I’m supposed have read before I do an interview in an hour, half a dozen random sites that I visit during the day as I check gossip on a competitor or read the Dilbert cartoon someone emailed me…

How am I supposed to think Deep Thoughts when I’ve got that much noise?

Browser tabs are just the tip of the iceberg, of course. I carry a cell phone, and I probably text in meetings several times each day. If I walk by somebody’s cube and realize that I have a question, I often ask it, even if it looks like they’re heads down. I pull people into meetings. My door is always open when I’m in my office, and I’m always up for a chat. And I cheerfully take new tasks and action items without batting an eye. (One reason I don’t carry a smartphone is because in my heart of hearts, I know I couldn’t handle the escalation in my connectedness.)

Not quite a catastrophe

To be fair, my job is supposed to be collaborative and communicative; if tech companies just needed architects for their navel-contemplation skills, they could hire much cheaper and quieter employees. As I’ve said repeatedly on this blog, people are part of architecture, and interacting with teammates is both a tool and an end unto itself. Those meetings I’m attending (or calling) are how I develop shared mental models, motivate and teach, manage momentum, and put a stake in the ground. Those wikipedia pages and chat sessions and interesting blog posts are part of learning voraciously, which is a strategic imperative for any software architect.

However, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing.

What might work

This post is more confessional than pedagogic. I don’t think I have great answers, yet. But they say confession is part of the journey out of addiction, so now I’ve come clean, and I’m going to start a journey to do better. That article I read inspired me.

Here are some things I want to try:

1. morning meditation

Before I check email and calendars in the morning, I will do a brief morning routine where I ponder priorities for the day and ground myself in my journal and other “sharpen-the-saw” investments. An important outcome from this will be a single goal for the day that merits my concentration. To throw out another phrase from Covey: I’ll “begin with the end in mind.”

2. one dedicated block

I will find a 1- or 2-hour stretch each day when I can concentrate. I will turn off email and my cell phone, close all windows on my desktop except ones critical for the task at hand, close the door of my office, and then think hard. I’ll try to train people to reach out to me by email (an interruption I can schedule at my convenience) if my office door isn’t open. (The luxury of a true office is one I haven’t had for most of my career. Darn cubes… But as long as this is an option, I might as well take advantage.)

3. more courtesy

I’m going to respect other people’s time and try to interrupt them less. Email or a post-it or a wiki page instead of meetings, in cases where it’s a good tradeoff. Where meetings are the right answer, I’ll try to make them shorter and more effective. I’ll save friendly conversation for the breakroom and come back later with my questions if I approach and discover a colleague deep in the zone. (I’ve scheduled this blog post to go live at about lunch time in an effort to practice what I preach…)

I’ll report back to you if I discover anything helpful as I work this problem. When your feed reader or email notifies you that I’ve posted again, I’m sure you’ll drop everything to read it immediately. Right? :-)

Action Item

I’d really like to hear your ideas on this topic. Do you have silver bullets that kill the interruption problem? If so, please share! Or if you want to chime in with your own 12-step-style confession, I’m all ears as well…

8 thoughts on “Interrupting my interruptions

  1. dougbert says:

    Man, I have been pushing Tom DeMarco’s book “Peopleware (1988)”{ for over 15years. He describes how to maximize knowledge workers (and programmers are the ultimate in knowledge workers) during their creative periods. Result: Allow them time to ramp up and time to do their work – KEEP INTERRUPTIONS at bay.

    Takes 15-20 minutes to get in to the “engineering flow or zone” and any interruptions will lose that zone – any interruptions: phone, email, boss, co-worker, etc. Solution: PRIVATE offices, quiet work areas, LESS real time communication work areas (send an email). Most “I got to have this info now from Joe” is false, send an email request for joe to answer when he wants to.

    Cube offices make for terrible knowledge worker environments. If people say: I get more done before 7AM and after 5PM, that is an indictment for a bad work environment for a knowledge worker. That is why I rather come in at 10-11AM and work to 7-9PM (I am a empty nester though).


    • I just started reading Peopleware this last week. Hopefully this reinforces my resolve. My first couple days of new habits have been a mixed bag. I’ve interrupted others less, and I’ve tried to be more focused myself, but I’m still averaging an interruption every 5 or 10 minutes, it seems…

      • dougbert says:

        it is funny that at Adaptive, people put a sign on their door/cube that says to the effect: Don’t bug ME!

        I had my dilbert tape which I would put up once in awhile which did the same thing

        Allowing an engineer 2 to 4 hours once a day to actually DO WORK in creation/support etc, without interruption (and people honor those CLOSED doors/cubs), much could be done

        My most product days were at Novell, where we had a door we could close. I usually left it 6 inches ajar, which allowed others to peek in to see if I would accept them. A small amount of time, I would close the door and program like a devil – LOVED those times

        thx again for your thoughful posts, they are great


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