Managing Interruptions

Interruptions kill productivity in any work environment and it’s no different if you’re working from home or not. In this post I share some of the techniques I’ve been using for several years to help manage interruptions:

  • The Pomodoro Technique
  • Educate your environment
  • Replay what happened prior to the interruption

The Pomodoro Technique

Check out The Pomodoro Technique website in case you’ve never heard of it. Besides working in focused 25-minute blocks, the main thing I got out of this technique has been tracking interruptions and classifying them as:

  • Internal: have I stopped working on my task because I saw a social network or email notification? Or maybe because I opened the web browser to check one thing related to my task and ended up reading the news instead? Such interruptions are considered internal because I didn’t have self-control and focus to stay on target. That’s easily addressed by shutting off all notifications, at least during that focused time.
  • External: have I stopped working on my task because somebody walked up to my desk and started talking to me? Or maybe because I got pulled into some unplanned meeting? These are external interruptions brought to me. They can be addressed by educating your environment. More on it further down…

I can’t stress enough the importance of taking note of the interruptions, classifying them as internal or external, and finding ways to prevent them from happening again.

Educate the Environment

Let your environment (physical or virtual) know whether it’s ok to interrupt you or not.

  • Let people know that you’re in “do not disturb” mode: put up a flag, a post-it note, your headphones… whatever your token is, just let people know. Don’t forget to put it away when you are available (use the status feature if you’re working from home);
  • Let them know why, if necessary: Depending on the situation, when others know why you’re not available, they are likely to help to keep others from interrupting you;
  • Let them know what they should do if they need you: if they have an urgent situation, let them know to interrupt you by all means. If it’s not urgent, let them know to drop a note such as “I need 5 minutes of your time before 3pm today…”. They can leave a post-it note on your desk or a message in whatever communication channel has been clearly defined. Make sure to get back with them (this is essential for the system to work!).

This is what I have right outside my home-office…

Replay what happened prior to the interruption

A big problem with interruptions is that it takes us an average of 25 minutes to return to the original task. If my task is done on the computer, I’ve found ways to decrease the time it takes me to get back “in the zone”:

Take screenshots: I’ve been using TimeSnapper for a long time. I blogged about this 13 years ago! In nutshell, the tool takes screenshots every 5 seconds. If I get interrupted, I can use the tool to replay the screenshots and jumpstart my mind to put me back in the zone.

Git commits: I’ve also used my commits in Git to get back up to speed after an interruption. If I was heads-down working on a user story, implementing my tests, making them pass one by one, and committing after each step, I can then look at the commits to see the work I had done prior to the last interruption, which helps me get back in the right frame of mind.

Summing Up

If you take anything of this post, this should be it:

  1. Realize you’ve been interrupted;
  2. Determine whether it was an internal or external interruption;
  3. Isolate the source of the interruption;
  4. Put some system in place to prevent the same kind of interruption to happen again;
  5. Some interruptions can’t be prevented, so put a system in place to recover from it quickly.
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