Why knowledge workers are vulnerable to distraction

Have you ever tried to count to 1000 in your head? Once you've learned the mechanics of counting it's not really that difficult but It does require concentration.

Now, try that same scenario again but this time with people talking to you...

Once more but this time with people shouting numbers back at you!

It's not hard to see that the task starts to get more and more difficult when you add distraction. Imagine one last time a task a little more difficult, say picturing in your minds eye all the working parts of a watch while simultaneously imagining that watch in motion, following along as the watch moves forward through one 'tick'. Is it possible to do this? Maybe not for a normal person, but what about for a Horologist? Ah, for someone who is a maker of watches that seems more reasonable. But just like the counting example it takes mastery of the mechanics of watches and ample concentration.

Now let me place some context on these exercises to put them into perspective for this article. Knowledge workers, and in this context specifically I'm speaking about developers, are very similar to the horologist example. We differ in primarily the application. Instead of gears and bearings in a watch we imagine call flow and databases. We've been trained and have spent our careers getting better at holding more and more complex things/processes/concepts in our head. We are trained to do this because this skill proves most valuable and necessary when trying to solve some of the complex issues that we face. Thankfully, given the right conditions, human beings aren't too bad at this kind of thing. When a developer is in the right frame of mind, he or she is able to hold a lot of things in their head at one time and solve some staggeringly difficult problems.

Enter the distraction:

Interrupted Developer Original Here from Jason Heeris

First of all, I love this image. It's funny and it so eloquently summarizes the scenario I tried to describe above. What I find most poignant abis not the fact that the developer gets completely derailed. That's an obvious problem. I think the more interesting and also subtle part is that the guy who asks about the email really has no clue about what he just did. This is the not uncommon. Many times individuals will inadvertently interrupted and I find that often it isn't someone higher up, it's one of your developer co-workers

Why is this? Shouldn't these people be the most sensitive and sympathetic to how much trouble distractions cause? After all they themselves have probably had this very thing happen to them at some point. Well, I am not saying that they aren't. I am saying though, that like pretty much every one of us, it's really easy to just not think about it. On top of that, I think proximity plays a big role. If you have someone sitting next to you and they want/need to ask you a question then it's pretty easy for them to just lean over and ask.

So now is a good time to ask yourself, are you guilty of doing this? I know I am. But perhaps you are the patron saint of courteousness, so let me ask that another way. Do you work in one of those hip open offices (which I personally loath)? If so, when was the last time you had a conversation at normal speaking volume out in the open? Or how about this. When was the last time you stood haphazardly around a desk in an impromptu meeting out in the open? Without walls, sound travels pretty easily. Likewise without visual barriers the old homage rings true; actions speak louder than words. So if you're guilty of any of these (or variations thereof) you might also be guilty of distracting someone without you even knowing it. See how easy it is to just not think about it?

"Get over it!", some say. "Wear headphones!", others say. To them I reply, some of us don't want to listen to music while we work (or just don't want to do it all day). Some of us are completely capable of "dealing" with the distraction but wish it weren't something that we had to "deal" with at all. You see this isn't a rant about how everyone should be as quiet as a mouse and never walk near someone working. It's not saying that distraction is JUST THE WORST THING EVAR!! On the contrary, this article is simply meant to address the fact that for many people, this is a problem. I would even go so far as to hope that it could stir up sympathies or even good solutions to the issue.

Stirring those thoughts...

What's the cost of distraction?

Let's think about the cost of these distractions.

There is a "fact" that is thrown around that it takes at least 30 minutes for someone to get back in the zone once they are pulled out of it. I can't speak to the veracity of that fact but I can agree anecdotally and I do consider it an interesting starting point in thinking about how our actions impact others. At a bare minimum I should realize that if I do something that distracts someone enough to knock them out of that zone, that kinda sucks. If indeed it takes them awhile to get back to where they were, then I should be mindful of that. Sometimes impromptu meetings are necessary. I wont deny that, however when it is necessary, get a room if you can for the sake of your coworkers. Be mindful of standing around desks where people are working; you are likely to be a visual distraction.

Another less discussed problem with distraction is what I will call Anticipated Distraction and I think it's worth mentioning. Think of this like bracing yourself for something coming. Instead of being able to get in the zone, a person is distracted because they know that some time in the near future something ELSE is going to distract them. Crazy right? Well maybe a better way to put it is like this. Picture yourself getting into that zone. Trouble is in about 30 minutes you've got a meeting. Do you try as hard as you can to get into that zone OR do you instead kinda spin your wheels, maybe check the news, maybe read your Facebook until the meeting? Dont really want to get all into the nitty gritty of what you're working on only to be ripped away from your task in such a short time right? :) Be mindful that the meetings and events you do plan can cause as much distraction as walking up and interrupting someone. This anticipatory distraction is also a factor if you think someone might disturb you. This is why so frequently developers claim they do their best work at night; People aren't going to bother them so they dont anticipate and distractions and they can get into the zone.

What's the solution?

The solution is probably going to vary by situation so I'll speak from my personal perspective for this point. I am of the opinion that we should strive to eliminate all distractions that we can within reason. Having a stronger culture around distraction, or rather, the antithesis of it is the first step. I think that instead of talking around the open office space, that the areas where people work would be "library voices" only. I think that individuals should always ask themselves one question before they interrupt a working co-worker, "Can this be done asynchronously?". The question should reveal the urgency of the interruption. Is this an immediate need or can I just send them an email about it. Would a chat do the trick? Basically make verbal communication the last resort.

I know that there are those of you who say. "It's not a problem for me". Even in those cases where people don't claim to have an issue with distraction I believe that they still suffer the consequences of having their concentration divided. They are human after all and we more or less all play by the same rules. Your brain is not really good at multitasking (dealing with or ignoring distractions while deeply concentrating is an example of this) despite the common thought.

What's the payoff?

So why should we bother with all of this? Why go through the effort of changing thing and walking on eggshells? Why bother creating a culture that discourages distraction? From my point of view the answer is simple: happier more productive people. If there is a precedent that the office will be a quiet place then I think that people will get more done, have less trouble getting into their best frames of mind and as a side effect be happier. Knowing that when you step into that office that it will be an environment conducive to your best work is a good feeling. There is no dread associated with the fact that, "Oh great, Jim will be in shortly. He's so loud!". Knowing that everyone is in it together and respectful of one another is pretty cool too.


So consider again, are part of the interrupting culture or do you try your best to use interruption as a last resort? Do you think that setting some reasonable baselines would encourage work or discourage people? Do you think that less distractions overall would make you a more productive person?