Monday, January 7, 2008

Interruption Management for the easily distracted.

As a child, I was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder. Slowly, over time, I've been able to grow out of the worst symptoms and become a (somewhat) productive member of society. It's required more than a few tricks. I thought, for the sake of you other wanderers out there, that I would post a few hacks that get me through the day.

1) Polling vrs. Interrupt
Set up ALL your information flows so that you decide when to check for updates. You poll for new data rather than being interrupted by it arriving. Here are two easy ways to do it:
  • Turn off new email audio notifications. If it beeps, and you're like me, you'll check it. This will disrupt what you're working on and then the internet's distractions become that much harder to resist. If your job requires you to respond to emails promptly, set up filters to beep ONLY when important clients are emailing you. Set your email to check for new messages every hour...or better, turn the auto checker off and grab your new email manually. (This might not work for the more manic among us)
  • Turn off your phone's ringer. Yea, that's right, turn that crap off. Check your voice mail as often as you want but don't let a ringing phone drive you off track. Again, if you simply have to respond to phone calls...use your caller ID. Only pick up calls of direct importance. Respond to your voice mail when your work schedule allows. I find that making my ring-tone for incoming calls as boring as possible can help too.
2) Environment.
Make your "work" environment as isolated as you can. A few examples:
  • Remove toys, pictures, shining things, and fidget fodder from your desk. Keep your desk as clean as you can. Don't let it get so dirty that the need to clean it becomes a distraction.
  • Don't Snack: Keep food in a different room or at least in a place where you can't see it. If you're hungry enough that it's interfering with your concentration, it's probably a good time to grab a short walk and stretch.
  • Sound: Close your office door. If you work in a cube or an open office, wear headphones. You want to keep other's conversations from running into your head.
  • Music: I find that listening to bland/mellow music does wonders for my concentration. Anything from Kruder and Dorfmeister to DJ Dan works for me. The key is to pick tunes that will drown out background noise without making you stop and pay attention to it. I use Pandora.com a lot.(fair disclosure: I work on their mobile software) It's a free service which will keep dumping new music into your headphones. Just don't get distracted by interacting with it. IF you listen to music all day, make SURE you keep the volume low. It's very easy to do permanent damage to your ears while trying to keep that car alarm drowned out.
3) Social interruptions.
People have always been a huge source of interruptions in my line of work. You can learn to keep your mental train on track without sounding aloof or downright rude. Here are a few tricks I use regularly:
  • "Hey, give me just a second." If someone has a question or needs your attention... acknowledge their presence and ask for a small amount of time. Jot down what's in your head (In the computer world we might call this a Core/Stack Dump) or finish up what you're doing. At that point turn and address the interrupter's question.
  • "I'm in the middle of something, can I get back to you?" Unless it's an emergency, in which case you should divert your attention, this one usually works. Set a reminder (if you tend to forget like me) and then go back to what you were doing. Get to a good stopping point and then go find out what's up. The key to delaying people is remembering to get back to them. If people feel like you're being honest when you tell them it's not a good time, they're much more likely to leave you alone. If they think they're being blown off, they'll pester you more.
  • "What does the spec/document/competing product say about it?" If someone asks me a question about a piece of software's behavior I tend to answer with a question. It's a simple tactic that gets (assuming there is a spec or document to be read) people thinking for themselves. I started doing it because I honestly didn't know the answer to the questions...but I've been told it was really helpful by one of my favorite QA engineers.
  • "Can you email this question/information to me so I can remember it?" Move the question from an interrupt event to a polled event as discussed above. Plus, now you have a written trail of the information if the problem comes up again later.
  • Wear your headphone and look busy. If you look like you're hacking away at something, considerate folks will send you an email or check back with you later.
Again, the key to handling social interruptions well is to be considerate. If people know you're going to get back to them they are much more likely to leave you alone when you ask them to. If you blow them off, ignore them, or constantly forget to follow up they may just stand there and pester you....which helps no-one. Least of all your sanity.

These are just a few tricks I use. If you have a lot of experience in GTD or time management all this will seem pretty obvious to you. It's all stuff I do without thinking much about it. I'll get into more details the next time I need a distraction....oh wait...

4 comments:

James said...

Great thoughts Chris!

I think I'd spend the entire time hitting F5 in my email client to send receive so that I knew I wasn't missing anything.

Also, I find foreign language Rap and electronica to be really helpful when I'm trying to concentrate and work. The important parts for me: a driving beat, words I can't understand, but also words which aren't totally repetitive (sorry Fat Boy Slim, you're not in my work mix...)

I highly recommend MC Solaar, Les Nubians, and there's an Indian Rapper who I can't recall at the moment...

MEK said...

Awesome breakdown. I wish my brother would read this. He's all about the ADD :-)

Maybe I'll just send it to him...

Tom Seago said...

I also recommend a famous tactic of George Costanza - If you always look pissed off, then people will assume you are busy and will leave you alone. I know it seems mean, but it is hella effective :)

Sasha said...

I recognize that trick about the specs & docs!! Bastard!!! :)