Axiom: Interruptions cost 20 minutes

You’re sitting at your desk working away focussing in on a problem that’s been on your list to resolve for weeks.

Buttermere SwimmingYou start to uncover the various layers of the problem ruling some things out, adding new things in.

This isn’t a simple problem, it’s a bit complicated and you feel a bit like you are Poirot unravelling a mystery. You’re starting to build a real sense of achievement.

You’re not sure how long you’ve been working on this problem but just at the point you are starting to see some light at the end of the tunnel your boss walks in and asks why, yet again, you haven’t provided your weekly status report. You explain that you’ve been very busy doing real work and didn’t think anyone read the status reports anyway.

After a two minute conversation you return to your problem, but you’ve lost the thread – "where was I again". You curse your boss. Your curse yourself for coming into the office today.

You start all over again trying to resolve this knotty little problem. It takes you an age to regain the concentration that you had.

This is such a common problem that we accept it as normal. People have even adapted their working habits to try and carve out some time to get some work done.

The interruptions abound – email, phones, instant messaging, social media, people, meetings. But what is the cost of those interruptions.

My axiom has always been that the cost of an interruption is 20 minutes.

I thought that I’d got the 20 minute part from a book called Peopleware by Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister but I’ve recently been rereading it and actually it says this:

During single-minded work time, people are ideally in a state that psychologists call flow. Flow is a condition of deep, nearly meditative involvement…

Not all work roles require that you attain a state of flow in order to be productive, but to anyone involved in engineering, design, development, writing, or like tasks, flow is a must. These are high-momentum tasks. It’s only when you’re in flow that the work goes well.

Unfortunately, you can’t turn on flow like a switch. It takes a slow decent into the subject, requires fifteen minutes or more of concentration before the state is locked in. During this immersion period, you are particularly sensitive to noise and interruption. A disruptive environment can make if difficult or impossible to attain flow.

So where did I get 20 minutes from? Perhaps it’s just one of those things that changes in your mind over time? Not that it’s really that important, the significant factor here is that an interruption costs you significantly more than the length of the disturbance.

What Peopleware outlines is a theory called flow and the real question, therefore, is whether this theory is really the way our minds work.

The theory of flow appears to have been popularised by a Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (no I don’t know how to say it either), in the 1990′s based on research from the 1960′s and 1970′s. The idea of being in a flow or in the zone or being in the groove have been around for much longer than that.

There appears to be a great deal of research undertaken which, for the most part, would appear to validate the theory outlined by Csikszentmihalyi. For once the article in wikipedia appears to be reasonably authoritative and well referenced.

So I’m reasonably happy that the axiom is true even if it’s not specifically 20 minutes, but we all work in the real world. How do we work in a way that minimises the impact.

The first part of resolving most problems is recognising that it exists, many people don’t.

The second part of overcoming a problem is to recognise the part that we are in control of. I don’t think I’m unique in being able to generate my own set of interruptions. There are also things that I can do to manage many of the disruptions.

There are all sorts of schemes that people use and I don’t think that there is one that suites everyone. The following mind map (not my own) reflects some of the things that I do:

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