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Great Agile Workspaces: Multitasking and Distractions

By May 13, 2011 No Comments

A very basic agile workspace - high knowledge sharing, but high potential for interruption.

We tell ourselves lies about our ability to multitask and handle distractions, especially the younger generations.  Things like, oh kids these days have grown up with all that technology, their brains are wired differently as they chat, watch youtube and do their home work.  Our instinctive behaviours remind us that our brain rejects distraction. For instance, to really zero in on a faint sound in the distance we instinctively stop moving, shut our eyes, and focus entirely on listening carefully. Your brain does not multitask when it’s time to really pay attention.

I’ll often work from home when I’ve got something hard I need to just get done, it’s quiet and nobody can interrupt me (obviously if your home is full of kids, dogs and noise this need not apply to you).  How often have you said  or heard something like this ? “I come in early because that’s the best hour of the day” or perhaps “I come in late and stay back to get my work done” or simply, “I don’t come into the office when I’ve got real work to do”?

Email, Facebook, Twitter, Instant Messanger etc…

Donald Knuth has a wonderful webpage on his Stanford faculty webpage about email – this is my favourite section.

“Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration. I try to learn certain areas of computer science exhaustively; then I try to digest that knowledge into a form that is accessible to people who don’t have time for such study.”

He goes on to describe how he likes to communicate in batch mode, once every three months.  Three months might be a little too long for most of us, but do we really need to check our email every three minutes ?  Come on, hands up if you click the send/receive button sometimes, even when your email checks every minute by default.  Facebook, Twitter, Instant messenger and pretty much all forms of electronic communication can be a major distraction if we as users of them don’t manage and mitigate it.  If you need to focus, turn them all off.  Don’t be tempted to just ‘check in’ or you risk losing short term focus or worse, ending up chasing a tangent to the task you really ought to be focused on.

There is a culture in some workplaces of needing to be always online, in a chat room or IM, instantly available to solve problems.  When there is genuinely an urgent problem – these systems work really well – but they command a high price in productivity, especially for developers.

Alistair Cockburn on Drafts

Alistair Cockburn has a great explanation in “Communicating, cooperating teams” to describe unwanted distractions created by co-workers in the office environment – Drafts.

“On the other side of their bank of cubicles sat the call center people, who answered questions on the phone all day. They also benefited from overhearing each other. But, and here was the bad part, the conversation of the call center people would (in his words) “wash over the walls to the programmers’ area.” There was a “draft” of unwanted information coming from that area.”

Beyond the nodes and contracts problems of large teams and large open workspaces, distracting drafts from other teams working near yours can be a major productivity drain. You only need to walk around an office, stand and listen to figure out if you have this problem.  If you can hear more than one or two simultaneous conversations at any stage, I think you’ve got a problem to solve.

The Winter of our Disconnect

A book about a single mum and her kids in Perth turning off all the screens in their house for 6 months might seem like an unusual place to find an epiphany, but that’s what happened to me.

Susan Maushart’s book, the Winter of our Disconnect is part diary, part drama and part scientific journal on the topic of distraction.  The stories of how addicted she and her kids are to being constantly connected, socially up-to date and online provides an uncomfortable mirror to most of our own lives.  Please buy a copy and read it.  It challenged some of my beliefs and cause me to face up to some deeper truths which I think I already knew were true about the cost of multitasking and distraction on the ability of our brains to perform.  Seriously, just buy it and read it.

Ultimately there are three kinds of distractions

Necessary ones – communication by definition requires some level of distraction from our deep cognitive tasks.  But … it’s also essential that we talk, design and work together to function as effective teams.  So while we should be sensitive to others when we do distract them, we shouldn’t shy away from it.

Self inflicted ones – Email, Twitter, Facebook, instant messenger and the telephone.  These are all things we can choose to turn off, ignore or just not have the first place.

Unnecessary ones – Cockburn’s Drafts,  music, selfish co-workers and poor environments all generate distractions which don’t add value.

Focus on having the best necessary distractions and eliminating as many of the self inflicted and unnecessary distractions from your work environment.  Finally, Conclusions.

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