I still do quite a bit of coding besides my work managing a team of software developers. I frequently dedicate solid blocks of time to coding work on specific projects. They are usually one to two-hour blocks. I minimize large interruptions during those periods by blocking my calendar, minimizing my email inbox and closing my internet browser.
There’s a more subtle type of interruption I haven’t eliminated. I’ve known of it for years, but I’m giving it my “undivided” attention after I heard Carl Newport and James Altucher discuss its effects.
I’m talking about the brief interruptions I still allow into my workflow.
If you switch your attention from one target to another, the original target will leave a residue in your brain that will stick around for a long time.
Your cognitive capacity will be reduced while this residue sticks around in your brain.
This is called the attention residue phenomenon. Its negative effects manifest when I switch attention from coding to reading an email message, and return to coding afterwards, for example.
I will keep thinking about what I read in the message, whether I have to respond, what I will say, etc. for several minutes after I return to coding. This is why I don’t like to read email during those periods.
Are Brief Interruptions Harmless?
The negative effects also occur after quick interruptions I used to consider almost harmless because they happen for a few seconds and then go away. Here are a few examples:
- The “new message” popup from my email client when a new message arrives. Yes, I don’t open my email client when doing coding work, but I leave the “new message” alert on. When it comes up, I detect the movement on the screen and spend the a few minutes thinking that a message came in and I don’t know what it’s about.
- The presence indicator of my instant messaging client telling me that a member of my team is online or offline. This is very similar to the example above. This little popup always takes my attention away for a few seconds. And I don’t really need to know at all times whether my teammates are online or not.
- My mobile phone’s screen lights up when a new email message arrives. I usually look at it for a second or two and then keep wondering what the message could be about for a few minutes. I don’t stop to open the messages immediately, but I keep thinking about what the message could be about long after the alert happens.
So, I will try a few changes for a couple of weeks to eliminate these short distractions. I will turn off the “new message” popups from my email client, and the online presence alert from my instant messaging client. I will also turn off the email alerts on my mobile phone’s lock screen.
I don’t think I have to use a formal method to measure their impact. I can usually get a good feel for whether I’m being more productive while coding by simply reviewing my output for a given period. I’m pretty sure I will see improvements.
Over to You
What about you? Do you take quick glances at your email inbox while working on other projects? What are you doing to keep these interruptions from affecting your work?