Luke Melia


October 16, 2005

The Interruption Problem

Clive Thompson has an article in weekend’s NY Times magazine entitled Meet the Lifehackers. It covers some issues I’ve been interested in lately, the problem of being productive within a world of technology that’s oriented towards interruption. Between email, phones wired and wireless, instant messaging, television, meetings and the needs of those who depend on you (Chiara, I’m looking at you), it’s very easy to spend more of your day “interrupted” than “proactive”.

I’ve been especially keen for solutions to this problem lately. Writing software is exponentially more productive when you can focus for extended periods of time without interruption. I want to create this space for my team and myself at work, and stay on top of my freelance commitments and personal interests at home while still being a responsive manager and an attentive father.

The article notes some technique, research and benefits related to multiple monitors and screen real estate.

When Czerwinski walked around the Microsoft campus, she noticed that many people had attached two or three monitors to their computers. They placed their applications on different screens – the e-mail far off on the right side, a Web browser on the left and their main work project right in the middle – so that each application was “glanceable.” When the ding on their e-mail program went off, they could quickly peek over at their in-boxes to see what had arrived.

The workers swore that this arrangement made them feel calmer. But did more screen area actually help with cognition? To find out, Czerwinski’s team conducted another experiment. The researchers took 15 volunteers, sat each one in front of a regular-size 15-inch monitor and had them complete a variety of tasks designed to challenge their powers of concentration – like a Web search, some cutting and pasting and memorizing a seven-digit phone number. Then the volunteers repeated these same tasks, this time using a computer with a massive 42-inch screen, as big as a plasma TV.

The results? On the bigger screen, people completed the tasks at least 10 percent more quickly – and some as much as 44 percent more quickly. They were also more likely to remember the seven-digit number, which showed that the multitasking was clearly less taxing on their brains. Some of the volunteers were so enthralled with the huge screen that they begged to take it home. In two decades of research, Czerwinski had never seen a single tweak to a computer system so significantly improve a user’s productivity.

That jives with my experience. Each member of our team has a two-screen setup at work, and I have the same at home. I consider it invaluable. It seems that some degree of interruption is manageable. A quick glance to the second screen to confirm that an incoming email requires no action doesn’t seem to interrupt my flow significantly.

Speaking of email, I’ve done my best to make sure the only email arriving in my inbox is the type of communication that I consider appropriate for email. What’s appropriate? Messages that someone wrote with me individually in mind. Using procmail and Bloglines, I route email newsletters into my bloglines account so I can read them in the context of my RSS subscriptions — all information that I’m interested in but was not written by someone for me specifically.

I try not to answer my phone when I’m in the zone, but calls can still interrupt even if I need to check the screen for caller ID information. Since I rarely get important communications by phone at work, I’m find that checking voicemail twice a day is preferable to answering calls. I expect that corporate phone systems will soon be routing voicemails into employees’ email inboxes and I think this will help.

As for instant messaging, I’ve simply ditched it for the time being. I was once a heavy user. From 2000 to 2003, I socialized, planned, debugged, flirted and more over IM. Soon, I found myself keeping my away message on sometimes to stay focused, and then most of the day, and now I rarely sign on. I’m not thrilled with this, as I miss the chance to socialize with friends who use this medium, and I think it can be useful for quickly picking peoples’ brains for a solution to a problem I come up against. All in all, though, I don’t think it’s worth it for me.

The article also mentions David Allen’s Getting Things Done system. I still am halfway through the book, mostly because I was so excited by it that I immediately wanted to put the ideas to the test. The thing that made me so enthusiastic is the simple premise that when I make a decision to do something and can’t accomplish it in two minutes right now, it should go on a list — and, most importantly, that this discipline will help me stay more focused on the task at hand, my subconscious resting easy that my projects and todos are under control. So far… excellent!

As evidenced by my attempts to minimize the interruptions, the best way to keep focused is to not get interrupted in the first place. Many of the interruptions can be quite enticing. As the Times article notes, “It turns out that a certain amount of life-hacking is simply cultivating a monklike ability to say no.”

Now… shouldn’t you get back to whatever it is that you were trying to get done?

2 Responses to “The Interruption Problem”

  1. Anthony chimed in:

    No, I shouldn’t.

    How was that? Felt good.

  2. Luke Melia » Tracks 1.04 released, and open source perspectives chimed in:

    […] I’ve been contributing code to an open source project called Tracks. It’s a web-based tool that helps people implement the Getting Things Done system (previously mentioned here). […]

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