January 16, 2015 by Roman Ožana

How to Deal with Interruptions

A quick question at work is harmless, right?


You’ve probably complained about interruptions at some point and you’re not wrong to feel this way. Distractions are one of the biggest contributors to reduced developer productivity and performance.

They delay task completion, they increase the amount of mistakes we make, and they’re just plain annoying.

But whether they’re planned or random, interruptions happen. So instead of complaining, we need to learn how to deal with them and recover faster when we’re pulled away from our work flow.

Why are interruptions bad in the first place?

There’s actually research to support your dread of desk visits and random phone calls. In fact, it’s a struggle for everyone.

The average office worker is interrupted every 3 minutes and can take as long as 23 minutes to return to their original task, according to Gloria Mark of University of California, Irvine.

The same applies to developers.

Game Developer Magazine conducted a study of 10,000 programming sessions from 86 developers and a survey of another 414 in 2013.

Here’s what they found out:

  • It takes a developer at least 15 minutes to resume editing code after they’re interrupted.
  • The average developer gets one uninterrupted 2-hour session per day.
  • The worst time to interrupt anyone is when they have the highest memory load.

And if the lost time isn’t bad enough, interruptions also increase the amount of mistakes we make. In a recent study, researchers found that interruptions as brief as 2.8 seconds doubled the amount of errors students made on a computer test. For interruptions lasting about 4.4 seconds, errors tripled!

How to reduce interruptions

So, what can we do to help us cope better?

Cut down on distractions

While you can’t always control other people, you do have some level of control when it comes to your working environment.

Here are some things you can try:

  • Turn off your desktop and email notifications.
  • Turn off all social media notifications.
  • Silence your phone.
  • Put on a pair of headphones (music optional).
  • Alert the rest of your team to “do not disturb” times with an away message.
  • Only have relevant tabs open on your browser or try using a tool like OneTab to consolidate all your open tabs into one.
  • Close all non-essential programs.

Extra Tip: If you don’t like wearing headphones, our developers like to wear earplugs instead to help shut out extra noise.

“It’s not a good time” 

Scheduling meetings ahead of time is a great way for developers to have an idea of what interruptions to expect. Some companies have found that workers are likely to lose less productive time when they can anticipate interruptions.

But things don’t always go according to plan – so what should you do if someone interrupts you in the middle of something?

Tell them.

Strong communication between our members is a very important part of how we work at Testomato. We never assume someone just knows a person is busy.

It’s important to be honest, without being rude. Most people will understand, since they have their own tasks and jobs to worry about. The solution isn’t only to “teach” others not to interrupt – you should also learn the right way to explain to them it’s better to come back later.

Have a plan

Another thing that can help you recover from interruptions more quickly is to have a detailed plan in place.

Tom Lyndon wrote a great post on the ways better planning can help you manage distractions and avoid being a night owl just because you want some uninterrupted time.

His advice is to make sure all your major projects and tasks are planned out. Flowchart processes you need to complete a task, break down tasks into smaller steps, and then, break down each method and function you’ll need to write the shell of your application.

This not only makes it easier to see how much time you have left in a task, but it also means it’s easier to figure out what you were doing if you’re stopped.

Implement better tools

When you work in an office (and even if you’re working remotely), the right tools can also have a huge impact on how often you’re interrupted and what tasks require a direct conversation.

Using a tool to help you stay updated about work, track what’s been finished, and address low severity problems can help you reduce how often interruptions occur.

You might not get an interruption-free environment, but having one place to share, create, and discuss work can make a huge difference!

Here are some tools that have really helped us:

  1. Git lets us contribute code from different access points.
  2. Agilezen helps us track our tasks as a team and address workflow issues.
  3. Confluence is a great space for us to share new ideas, discuss new features, and make decisions together without calling a lot of meetings.
  4. HipChat keeps us in touch and ensures we can check in with people before making an unannounced visit.

Image: Anthony Acosta

What tricks and tips have helped you reduce or deal with interruptions? We’d love to hear! 

Let us know in the comments below or on Facebook. You can also tweet us directly @testomatocom.

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