Rethinking interruptions

If you read a few personal productivity articles you’ll run into this advice: Interruptions are bad, so eliminate interruptions. That’s OK as far as it goes. But are interruptions necessarily bad? And when you are interrupted, what can you do to recover faster?

Not all interruptions are created equal. Paul Graham talks about this in his essay Holding a Program in One’s Head.

The danger of a distraction depends not on how long it is, but on how much it scrambles your brain. A programmer can leave the office and go and get a sandwich without losing the code in his head. But the wrong kind of interruption can wipe your brain in 30 seconds.

In her interview with John Udell, Mary Czerwinski points out that while interruptions are detrimental to the productivity of the person being interrupted, maybe 75% of the time interruptions are beneficial for the organization as a whole. If one person is stuck and other person can get them unstuck by answering a question, the productivity of the person asking the question may go up more than the productivity of the person being asked the question goes down.

Given that interruptions are good, or at least inevitable, how can you manage them? Czerwinski uses the phrase context reacquisition to describe getting back to your previous state of mind following an interruption. Czerwinski and others at Microsoft Research are looking at software for context acquisition. For example, one of the ideas they are trying out is software that takes snapshots of your desktop. If you could see what your desktop looked like before the phone rang, it could help you get back into the frame of mind you had before you started helping the person on the other end of the line.

Have you discovered a tool or habit that helps with context reacquisition? If so, please leave a comment.

9 thoughts on “Rethinking interruptions

  1. If I work on hairy things I always work with paper & pencil. That has three important advantages. First, using them involves less overhead than a text editor or a mind-mapping tool.
    Secondly, the distractions which occur using computers simply aren’t there.
    At last, if you get interrupted, the handwriting and the (perhaps cancelled) bits of information help greatly in restoring one’s thoughts.

    PS: The link to Paul Grahams blog is mangled.

  2. I definitely think cycles of using a computer and not using a computer are better than using a computer all day.

    Thanks for letting me know about the mangled link. I fixed it.

  3. I have to agree with David. My productivity (or at least my ability to focus continuously on a particular topic) definitely increased greatly when I started using a pen and notebook for thinking through ideas.

    The solid state nature of pen-and-paper is very related to the idea of taking desktop screenshots to improve context re-acquisition.

  4. My high school CS classmates and I all adopted clipboards and grid paper as our universal problem solving environment. Of course you had to decorate and modify your ‘bord but that was just part of the fun. A couple layers of paper would keep your floppies safe from the clip. To this day I can still solve problems better with that combo. A highlighter and a few different colored pens maybe the most complex it ever gets. Definitely minimizes distraction and loss of focus.

  5. “Czerwinski and others at Microsoft Research are looking at software for context acquisition.”

    Well, I thought “Great!” until I realized this articles is 8 years old. Not much progress, I guess.

    But re-acquiring context is something I wrestle with constantly, in both the real and digital worlds. Some of the lowest-hanging fruit would be improving browsers, so you can better organize and save various sets of tabs.

    Maybe there are some extensions for that, but in general the user experience is still very crude, especially considering nearly everything is done in the browser nowadays (if not in a mobile app).

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