Programmer, Interrupted

Okay, interruptions kill productivity. Another recent article mentions planned interruptions to make things even worse. They talk about meeting appointments, for example.

But I dare say: interruptions are only ruining your day if they are external. If you take a break, things don’t look that bad. You can train yourself to re-focus. And I argue this is a useful skill.

It took me a while to train this skill, but nowadays I’m interrupting myself at my home desk every 30 minutes, get up and move a bit to stay healthy. I don’t need 10 minutes to refocus. I sit down, take a deep breath, and continue to write code. Just like that.

Heck, I even wrote an annoying break timer to force me to get up.

Talking makes things worse, though; makes it harder to re-focus. That’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? After all, you switch contexts and engage in a different activity that uses a lot of your attention. Socializing is important to us pack animals, so there’s no way to not read faces and listen for subtleties in intonation. It’s just what we do. And it pulls all of our attention away from other things.

If I have the work break for myself, though, I can continue to mull over a problem in my head. In this case, getting up and leaving the keyboard means to interrupt an activity that may not lead anywhere at the moment. I bet you know this situation: you can’t seem to figure out how to fix a bug because some components are too entangled; whenever you try to change something, something else breaks. (Of course this never happens in your own projects.) A break then interrupts the need to type on the keyboard and produce code. It helps switch from typing mode to thinking mode. It’s like facilitating the proverbial ideas you always seem to get in the shower.

If you’re afraid of interruptions eating away your productivity, I challenge you to install controlled breaks every 30 minutes to get used to the flow. Sitting for an hour straight already kills your body. You won’t notice if you’re not reasonably healthy; it just feels normal, but it isn’t normal.

I bet that my training to do regular work breaks makes me more resilient to short external interruptions. Put me in an office and see for yourself 😀