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Why Any Interruption, No Matter How Short, Has a Giant Negative Impact

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Posted on 07/29/2015

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You walk by the office of a programmer in the morning and talk for 30 seconds with them. Nothing more than good morning and how was your day yesterday. Short, polite, and no big deal as you only took half a minute, right?

Actually — no!

Your 30-second interruption is a 45-minute hit in their productivity.

The Developer Mindset

For developers, keep in mind two key items.

  1. If left alone, the average developer will work for over 4 hours straight without coming up for air.
  2. It takes about 45 minutes to get in the groove. So 45 minutes to get in the groove, then 3+ hours banging out the code.

Any interruption, no matter how short, pulls them out of what they’re focusing on. It will now take them 45 minutes to get back in the groove.

ProgrammerInterruptedWhen You *Really* Shouldn’t Interrupt Developers

When They Arrive in the Morning

Developers generally come in fresh and having worked through how to solve the problem they are on. They’re ready to sit down and crank out the code. A “good morning” is fine when they walk in, but if you pull them into a serious discussion, you’ve pulled them out of the groove they were settling in to as they walked in.

When They Leave at Night

When they leave for the day is also not a good time. Innumerable times as I’m stuck on a really hard problem, the solution jumps to mind as my hand hits the stair rail on the way out the office. This is so common that if I’m stuck late in the day, I close up and head out assuming I’ll get inspiration at that point.

But the inspiration never happens if I’m pulled into a discussion on the way out. A “have a nice evening” is fine, but much more than that and it’s broken my focus.

During the Day — Sometimes

You see them in the hallway, heading to the kitchen or just after finishing a discussion with another programmer. They’re fair game then, right? Sometimes it’s fine then, but sometimes it’s just as bad as interrupting them in their office.

Look at their face and if they’re clearly thinking then it’s every bit as big a hit. If they’re aware of their surroundings, then it’s probably fine.

Remember, these hits are not just on the volume of code written; it also affects how good the code is. After 3 interruptions in a morning a half hour apart, even if left alone after that, most programmers will not be at their best for the rest of the day. The solutions they come up with will often be poorer than if they had not been interrupted.

This is why interruptions are tremendously destructive to both productivity and the quality of the final code.

How to Stop (or at Least Limit) the Interruptions

Go ahead and say hi when developers arrive or leave. But for anything else,  send email.

If you must meet, set it to just before or after lunch. Or ask them to find you when they hit a good break point. There are times in the middle of the day when they shift from one issue to something totally new and talking then is fine. You just don’t know when that will be.

And by all means, if something is important enough, interrupt them whenever.  Just make sure it really is important enough.

If you’re in management,  you can help by:

  1. giving programmers individual offices,
  2. encouraging programmers to turn off their phones, Skype, texting, Facebook, email, etc. while they’re working, and
  3. setting up interruption-free time as much as absolutely possible.

If you have to put them in cubicles then you have to, but then take into account the 50% drop in productivity it causes. If you need to have a daily morning huddle, then by all means have the daily huddle. But then take into account that all serious work only starts after the huddle completes and you lose their being in the groove as they walk in fresh in the morning.

You have trade-offs at work and you can’t make interruption-free an absolute (although sometimes I wish I could). Just keep in mind the true costs of interruptions to your entire company.

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Author: David Thielen

Dave, Windward's founder and CEO, is passionate about building superb software teams from scratch and dramatically improving the productivity of existing software teams. He's really proud that he once created a game so compelling (Enemy Nations) that a now-professional World of Warcraft player lost his job for playing it incessantly on company time. You can read more from Dave on his personal blog, and at Huffington Post.

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