8 hours of work, nothing done: my journey into interruptions, getting wired in, and being able to write more than a couple of lines of code a day.
A couple of years ago I realized that I was spending a lot of hours at the computer, and—sure—sometimes I’d be very productive, but I felt that something was wrong, and that most of the work actually happened in 2-3 hours, usually during or right after lunch time or—better yet—at night or during weekends.
I’m a web developer, and work as a consultant for clients from my home office or co-working desk. In any case, I’m not really bound by a time schedule. I can get work done whenever I want. Regardless of this is a good or a bad thing, I can organize my time. This also means that if I’m productive and get a lot of stuff done, I could work for 4-5 hours and call it a day sometimes, and that wasn’t happening.
The idea that something was wrong in the way work got done grew in me gradually. I just noticed that I took way too long to accomplish tasks that I thought I’d be able to complete pretty fast, and in general that I spent way more than I should have working.
Other than than feeling, I had no idea what was going on.
37signals to the rescue
I don’t know what my I.Q. is—probably average—but I know I’ve never come out with any revolutionary new theory. However, I do read a lot of articles, and some of them have been a great inspiration—particularly work-wise—and I’m an avid thief of people’s ideas and experiences when I think they can be useful to improve.
For instance, I love the guys at 37signals. I’ve read many of their books and articles, and have watched a couple of presentations. Their ideas really helped me figure out how to work better and I picked up a lot of things from them, but the main one is avoiding interruptions.
I remember reading articles, and then watching this video on TED, Why work doesn’t happen at work, and it was a revelation: I hadn’t been productive because I’d get interrupted every 5 minutes.
I wanted to learn more.
Wired in/the zone
Any creative job, but I guess writing and programming in particular, require you to be concentrated for a long stretch of time to get things done. For programming it’s called “being wired in” (see http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=wired%20in and
http://marissabracke.com/getting-wired-in-how-to-get-focused-and-get-your-work-done-effectively). I also like to call it “being in the zone” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flow_(psychology)).
When you’re in the zone, you’re totally concentrated on what you’re doing, and you hardly notice what’s happening around you. Most importantly, your productivity is at its peak: you’re so focused on the job that you actually get things done like there’s no tomorrow.
That’s what would happen to me during those 2-3 hours! I was in the zone!
I started researching the concept more. I figured out that it was all true for me: while wired in I would do things 3-4 times faster, and most of the work I got done—unless it was some mindless little task—happened while I was wired in.
Unfortunately—and I don’t know if this is the same for everybody, it’s not easy for me to get in the zone. It takes me about 15 minutes of building up concentrating, and for that I need absolute silence and no distraction. I can play some music (to me trance works great for that) but no other noise such as TV or other people talking or moving around.
Sadly, if I get interrupted I get kicked right out of the zone. To get back in it, I need another 15 minutes. I figured it out: that was exactly the problem—getting interrupted.
Interruptions are poison
After figuring out that I needed to be wired in to get any work done, I started looking at my workflow, to try and make sure I’d spend as much time as I could being in the zone, to get things done faster and work smart instead of (just) hard.
I figure that since it took me 15 minutes to get in the zone, if I got interrupted by—for instance—a phone call, I would not only waste the time of the phone call, but the 15 minutes that it would take me to get back in the zone. I also noticed that once I got interrupted I’d start procrastinating before trying to get back in it: getting up to make coffee, checking my email, and similar. Sometimes it’d take me half a hour before being productive again, so that means that a phone call would cost me a lot of time and (therefore) money.
By paying attention, I noticed that I would get at least 1 phone call/hour, and the only time where I’d be left alone would be during/after lunch, at night, and during weekends.
Is this why programmers love to work at night or on Sunday? Just because people don’t bother them and they can work in peace? I think so.
Getting rid of the poison
If I got interrupted once/hour, and that would take 1/2 hour out of my productivity, I figured that that was no way to work, but more something like wasting my time to be available to people that loved interrupting me. Sure–some interruptions were clients, and you need to pick up the call if you want work, but if that means not having time to actually do the work, or having to work during weekend, does that make much sense? Not to me.
First, I got rid of what I consider annoying, useless interruptions. This includes app’s horrible default notifications, such as “I just updated myself, you’re fine!”—OK, I don’t care in the first place, if I don’t have to do anything while are you even bothering me with that?—and the like. I set Mail to not check for email automatically, so that I could control when to download emails: I decided I’d check it only once in a while instead of as soon as a message arrived, so that I could reply to everybody at the same time, avoiding interrupting my work and taking a smaller—and most importantly consecutive—chunk of time out of my day.
I started by deliberately scheduling working time. During working time, I would work, and nothing else, with no interruptions. I would turn my cell phone and all other devices that could be evilly be used to contact me, such as Skype, Messages, and the like. That includes the door bell (sorry door-to-door reps), and if I could I would even disconnect from the internet.
A wired in programmer is a happy programmer
That worked like a charm.
By being able to get in the zone for 1-2 hours at a time (or whatever needed), I about quadrupled my productivity: this means that I would work 1/4th of the time, and get the same amount of stuff done.
Since none of the matters that people would usually call me about were ever urgent, and I still checked my email once every couple of hours, the world didn’t end. I never lost any life-or-death communication, and annoyed any client either, as when I called back I’d explained that I was hard at work at their project, and that’s the reason why I wasn’t available.
Of course, now I don’t even have a cell phone—that’s right, it’s possible—so I totally went to the dark side, and that’s not really necessary, but I think that saying “no” to interruptions means that you care more about you and your work (and therefore your clients) than barely your clients and talking to them.
And that makes and keeps everybody happy.