Don’t Become Trained to Self Interrupt

The great thing about good habits is that we can identify, train and adopt them into our everyday lives. Sadly, the same is true for bad habits, however we rarely are aware that we have acquired them. This rang true with me recently where after a couple rough, interruption filled weeks in the office I had become trained to self interrupt.

Even later in the evenings after coworkers had gone home, I began to find that my production wasn’t picking up. Strangely, I kept finding myself opening Google or Twitter for no reason. I had nothing that I needed to look up, but I had the urge to look away from the code. I worried what was going on here? Have lost my ability to focus sharply? I had to find out.

Its well known that interrupting a developer who is in the zone is incredibly frustrating, and costs at least 10-15 minutes for them to get back where they were. Coworkers have told me that they can tell that they’ve wondered into my office at a bad time by my sigh and slam of my headphones. But was it really happening so often that the work pattern had become engrained in my brain? I had to test.
Identify the Problem:

Over the course of the next week I kept a post-it stuck next to my keyboard and kept a tally of both internal and external interruptions which I had throughout the day. I decided to build in breaks periodically for natural breaks as to not unfairly sway the measurement. I found that the Pomodoro technique (Wikipedia link) aligned well for this kind of test as apps are readily available on every platform. The result, an average 12 interruptions a day in addition to regular meetings and emails and rarely a 20 minute block of continuous work. In the hour or two of after hours work I found that the cadence of interruptions continued, but I was self-interrupting to keep pace. I had to correct.

I now had identified the issue and was rehabilitating by performing the opposite to retrain good habits. At the urge of a self-interruption I’d force myself to wait until the next built in break (about 25-30 minutes away max). Often times you end up forgetting what you were going to look away at anyhow. If there was an important article on Twitter I just had to checkout, I copied a link to OneNote and read it that night. Also at home, I forced myself to full read articles without breaks that I had previously become accustomed to skimming. It helped and quickly I was back in the zone.
Relapse Prevention:

You cannot always control the work environment as every place goes through its hectic and peaceful periods. What you can do is remove temptation for self-interruption. Uninstall and un-favorite Twitter from your machine now. I found it to be a huge time suck and there was a constant urge to see what big, important people in the industry had to say. By keeping Twitter to a mobile only experience I was able to keep in the zone much more consistently. Turn off toast notifications. You don’t need to see every weather change on the hour, every hour.

There are thousands of other productivity tips out there, most notably those in The 40 Hour Work Week, so I won’t rehash what is already out there. Just note that you cannot always put up a walled garden at work to stay productive. Be courteous during times of interruption and steadfast during quite times. I plan to keep doing the post-it note test every couple sprints to make sure I maintain all-systems-go.


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