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Slashdot Asks: How Do You Handle Interruptions At Work? 224

This question was inspired by this anonymous submission: Analysis of programming sessions and surveys note that programmers take 10-15 minutes to resume editing code after being interrupted. Computer scientists and researchers from University of Zurich and ABB Inc. have designed the 'FlowLight' system which automatically determines a worker's interruptibility using a combination of keyboard/mouse usage, calendar information, and login state, and makes interruptibility visible to other employees using a red/yellow/green LED indicator placed near the desk... Knowledge workers in various locations found that interruptions were significantly reduced by 46%. [PDF]
NBC reports these researchers "also tested a more advanced version that uses biometric sensors to detect heart rate variability, pupil dilation, eye blinks or even brainwave activity," and of course one of the researchers tells the New Yorker that a commercial version "is 'in the works.'" But it'd be interesting to hear from Slashdot's readers about their own solutions -- and how interruptions affect their own productivity at work. So share your best answers in the comments. How do you feel about interrupt
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Slashdot Asks: How Do You Handle Interruptions At Work?

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  • The price of red LED's is about to skyrocket.

  • crap (Score:5, Insightful)

    by l3v1 ( 787564 ) on Monday May 08, 2017 @03:54AM (#54374641)
    "automatically determines a worker's interruptibility using a combination of keyboard/mouse usage, calendar information, and login state, and makes interruptibility visible"

    I understand this is for coders, and how someone might think that when they don't tap away angrily they are available for interruption, but it would be safer to assume that when tapping slows or stops, there's a reason for that. And that reason might not always be that they have nothing more to do. Researching stuff, reading stuff, and just thinking about stuff might not be done in parallel with mighty mouse movements and constant tapping, but they are equally important. So my opinion about this is that it's a result based on research that just wasted money. The simplest way is generally better: just ask, or even better just agree on a time to discuss issues, it's really not rocket science.
    • I understand this is for coders...

      Not really. If it were for coders it would be discussing how to mask out irrelevant interrupts and install a suitable interrupt handler to deal with non-maskable interrupts.

    • Geez, just check when the compiler is running. If it is, I have a few minutes for you. See? This really isn't so hard, is it?

      • Re:crap (Score:5, Funny)

        by flex941 ( 521675 ) on Monday May 08, 2017 @08:20AM (#54375497)
        Some of use JIT! So that should mean you must never interrupt me!
      • Re:crap (Score:5, Informative)

        by Ol Olsoc ( 1175323 ) on Monday May 08, 2017 @10:30AM (#54376273)

        Geez, just check when the compiler is running. If it is, I have a few minutes for you. See? This really isn't so hard, is it?

        For coders, or anyone in particular, ya gotta remember that your particular job isn't the only, or the most important job at the place.

        Because that interruption might be from the guy who signs your paychecks.

        For me, it isn't coding, but 3-D work. It's like an alternate universe, and while reducing everything to numbers and juggling it all in my head, I do lose track of reality. And it takes time to come back, then get into the 3-D Universe again.

        While my people would "protect" me from interruptions when I was doing that intense work, there were some people who they had to let through. So it was just part of the day.

        If any of y'all have a position where you can thell the director or CEO to slag off - you better keep it.

    • No, no, no, no no.

      Any manager will tell you that if the programmer isn't sitting in a chair in a cubicle (preferably open-plan) typing where everyone can see, then that programmer isn't really doing productive work.

    • when tapping slows or stops

      When a programmer, engineer, or other knowledge worker of any kind stops typing, that person is LEAST interruptible, he has hit a problem that may require Maximum Effort. Do not mess with him. Interruptions of any kind at this point are beyond awful.

      Generally when we're typing or clicking, the problems are solved and we're being limited by our ability to get our idea in consumable form, short interruptions may not be as devastating. But "short" (30s) is the operative word. Maybe

  • I wouldn't want my employer spend a bunch of money to monitor my biometrics to determine my "interruptability", and of course use that data for "other purposes" as well, while they could simply give me a red light controlled by a switch. Red=do not disturb (and what the hell does yellow mean in this case?) Strangely, the article mentions that manual actions such as turning on a red light, putting up a sign, wearing headphones or closing the door to the office were perceived as "too cumbersome".
    • I think that IT management could learn a lot from call center operators about how to maintain 100% efficiency from staff using active monitoring techniques. These can be combined with objective productivity measurements, like lines of code written or number of bugs fixed.

      • Yeah, it's like looking at how dolphins stay underwater for extended periods of time and then implement the same technique on humans.
        TL;DR: it won't work. Apples and oranges.

      • by Wolfrider ( 856 )

        This article is about intrusive spyware, and statements like yours are PART OF THE PROBLEM.

      • I'm going to code my self an mini van today!

      • by guruevi ( 827432 )

        Call center operators have a turnover of about 3-6 months. They simply do not care who sits behind the desk or what effect it has on their employees, as long as you give 100%, 100% of the time. Take a 5 minute break because you feel sick and you pretty much get fired.

    • while they could simply give me a red light controlled by a switch.

      A suggestion I heard years ago was a hat. The problem is that when you slip into the zone you aren't thinking about light switches or putting on a hat.

    • [] wearing headphones []

      This has never saved me. I monitor how long it takes from putting on the headphones to be interrupted. Far too often, it's less than 60 seconds. The virtually unbeatable record stands at zero seconds. Every now and then I can work without being interrupted, but having my headphones on doesn't seem to stop anyone. I wish they would use the internal IM system! Much less distracting.

      • Kill internal voicemail. Voicemail is evil. It puts all the processing load on the recipient.

        IM is OK, but email is better.

        Physical visits should be scheduled in most cases.

        • Kill internal voicemail. Voicemail is evil. It puts all the processing load on the recipient.

          IM is OK, but email is better.

          Physical visits should be scheduled in most cases.

          Hah - I had a new guy once tell me that he doesn't answer the phone, do voicemail or do email, but only texts. If I needed to interface with him I'd have to text him.

          I informed him that our communications were way too complicated to be handled via text, always had time pressure, and that if he were to insist on not answering his phone, that I would show up at his cubicle, rather pissed that I had to interrupt my day by a half hour so he can avoid a 1 minute phone conversation, and that I may or may not

          • Yeah... different types of communication, though. And note that I said 'kill voicemail' not 'kill phones'.

            Most of what I get calls for are moderately simple requests that can't be serviced right away. What that means is that I have to listen to the voice mail, figure out who they are and what they want, and then take notes so I don't forget. If they just send me an email (hopefully with a clear subject), that's taken off me and the request is easier to queue.

            For complex subjects, you need more than a mom

        • +1000 on kill voicemail. Our group unofficially does not answer voicemail - it started with just me, and soon spread to everyone - our voicemail lights are always on, and after 30 messages queue up the system sends emails nagging us about it. Every month or so we delete them all and have a day or two where we're not sure if our phones are working (since that is normally the only time the VM light is off). Some are so put off by the change that they leave one in the box to keep it lit.

          If it's important, s

    • to monitor my biometrics

      In addition to which, we're programmers, and that biometric device is a device, after all. I'll be super productive the first week they attach it to me figuring out how to signal it to make sure it's red all the time.

    • by quetwo ( 1203948 )

      In my office, Green would be "I'm OK to be bothered right now". Lots of times, this would be if I'm waiting for a meeting, not doing programming, etc. Yellow is "Don't bother, unless it is absolutely necessary". For example, when there is a blocker issue or something that does require my attention, but not chit-chat. Red is "Don't bother me unless the building is on fire". This is when I'm really trying to concentrate on something and really can't be bothered for any reason.

    • while they could simply give me a red light controlled by a switch. Red=do not disturb...

      A few years ago we used to have these little do not disturb flags to put on top of our cube when we were really busy. Naturally the top performers tended to be very busy and were often showing DND. Those with less things to do, or less productive almost never used it.

      Management noticed, of course. But they didn't notice the right things. Instead of wondering why their average performers always had time to BS and their top performers didn't, they started letting it be known that having your DND flag up

  • Pro-tip (Score:5, Interesting)

    by skam240 ( 789197 ) on Monday May 08, 2017 @03:57AM (#54374657)

    I find wearing headphones (something kind of large that covers the ear, not earbuds or anything) scares off a lot of interruptions. If i'm doing something light I might even have music playing on them but most of them time they're just for show.

    • by Mal-2 ( 675116 )

      I used to use that trick at the poker table. I'd wear large, conspicuous headphones, and from time to time pull out and fidget with the media player. What I didn't tell people was that I never turned it on.

      It's amazing what people will say when they don't think you can hear them.

    • Same here. I tend to have music on quite low - unless there's a colleague ranting about politics, foreigners or the EU, then the volume goes up to 11 - and I've overheard one person saying "I bet he's not even listening to anything", which I had the good sense to pretend that I didn't hear.

    • I can very much recommend the "3M Peltor X5A ear defenders" [3m.com] for this purpose.

      They stick out so far they're visible in your peripheral vision, and provide a sizeable visual deterrant that says 'stay away'. -37dB of noise reduction, comfortable enough to wear all day.

      Apparently they're also used in gun ranges and Formula One.
  • by ovanklot ( 715633 ) on Monday May 08, 2017 @04:10AM (#54374685)

    Looking at it from a manager's perspective:

    Work in rooms, not an open-plan office. This way, if someone wants to interrupt you, they have to "pay" a higher price, like messaging you (you may not be available or the nature of the asynchronous conversation may not be convenient) or actually getting up and going to your room.

    Cultivate a culture of empathy, wherein people learn to pick up signs that someone is busy working. Apply peer pressure when someone doesn't pick up the cues. Make it an "insult" to destroy someone's flow. Don't be a dick about it, though - there are ways of cultivating this slowly and discreetly.

    • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 )

      I think it's mainly managers who don't trust us to not spend all day posting on Slashdot and actually do some work if we aren't in an open-plan office.

  • It can be impossible from time to time. We got to a point where I had interruptions multiple times pr hour. So I never got any work done besides helping others.
    So I:
    1) Shut down Outlook
    2) Shut down Lync
    3) Put my iPhone in airplane mode
    4) Set my desk phone status to being in a meeting for a few hours.

    I check my mail 2-3 times a day and then shut it down again.

    If somone complains about me not being available or that I haven't completed a task, I inform them that I have more tasks than time and I ask my boss t

    • by Viol8 ( 599362 )

      Someone in the ops dept in another company I worked at used to do that. In the end we just resorted to visiting his desk on the next floor up. He didn't like it but (unlike a coder) part of his job was being available for internal support issues so he couldn't complain. He wasn't overworked , just lazy. Whenever you went up (and he didn't spot you coming) he'd just be surfing the web.

      • Thankfully, I am not in operations so I don't have to be available all the time. :D But I have deadlines to meet so sometimes I have to isolate myself for a few days.

        But it seems like when you are too available, people seems to ask for help alle the time for something they could figure out if they would spend 3 minutes on it.
        So a bit of latency in the response filters out all that.

    • by swb ( 14022 )

      If somone complains about me not being available or that I haven't completed a task, I inform them that I have more tasks than time and I ask my boss to prioritize my assignments.

      That's a nice theory, but the problem is that many managers will ding you on reviews for poor time management. I've known people who got fired for it, being told that part of what was expected out of them was the ability to judge conflicting workloads and prioritize them yourself.

      I'm not saying that doing that -- even successfully -- doesn't result in complaints, or that people aren't legitimately given more work than they have the bandwidth to get done and that managers won't refuse to acknowledge this --

      • That's a nice theory, but the problem is that many managers will ding you on reviews for poor time management. I've known people who got fired for it, being told that part of what was expected out of them was the ability to judge conflicting workloads and prioritize them yourself.

        Exactly. And people who cannot be interrupted are not as valuable as those who can time manage.

        The dirty little secret of the monotaskers is that their insistence on one task, and one task only is as likely to be based on screwing off as it is on concentration.

        But these days, asking what your number 1 priority is almost always results in "they all are number 1" and nobody cares to fix this.

        I have shown people the workload, with everyone insisting that their job was "top priority", and saying that I had to figure out somewhere to start working first, so perhaps alphabetically would work for them? Especially if their name was "asshole"

        • by swb ( 14022 )

          Yeah, I did skip the asshole part. I actually told them if everything was the most important, I'd do the work by rank of the person handing out the work.

          I've used that technique before. Mostly gently, and people understood immediately that they were outranked by Bob so he got his first.

          But there were times where it was still true, but people didn't like the answer and I had to be really blunt. "If I don't do Bob's first, I get fired. If I don't do your job first, all that happens is you get mad. Do you understand why Bob is my priority and you aren't?"

      • what was expected out of them was the ability to judge conflicting workloads and prioritize them yourself.

        So what exactly is the role of the manager, then?

        • by swb ( 14022 )

          Well, I have two explanations.

          The snarky one is to fuck interns and make more money.

          The more charitable one is that a lot of "managers" have two roles. The first one is to herd a group of cats whose collective work is more than any one person can do (ie, management).

          The second role is to actually *do* a fraction of the work. Either because *their* managers deem it too sensitive to be delegated to rank and file employees, even if it is what they do best, or because they don't have enough rank and file empl

    • I suggest start looking for another job.

      Should be good advice, but I've been through 10 of them in about 25 years - let me tell you, they're all the same.

  • I do meetings, work on HW in the lab, do other routine stuff or browse the net. Coding happens strictly at home. My warm-up time is even longer than the cited 15 minutes because it's often somebody else's code that I need to figure out first, or something I haven't looked at in months. It's very rare these days that I actually write some piece of code that takes significant time. Just last week a three day troubleshooting expedition resulted in a one-byte change in somebody else's code. It was in a regex :(

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday May 08, 2017 @04:34AM (#54374735)

    I have a cash acceptor wired up outside my office, which dispenses sequential tickets. I won't talk to you unless you have a ticket.

    It was kinda a stupid joke I setup one day because I got sick and tired of being constantly interrupted. People actually took it seriously, much to the amusement of my boss. The first day I made well over $120 in spare cash from all the interruptions. The next day, I only made $40, but got so much more work done. The day after that, it was around $10, and then finally people got the hint and it was $0.

    Occasionally someone still comes and knocks on my door, and for the privilege of interrupting me, they get to pay $10 (in cash or coins). If I'm not too busy I'll drag the machine inside and leave it unhooked, but otherwise it's out there by my (closed) door and plugged in, ready to accept payment. I even landed up building an additional three units for our other developers (it's basically just a laser cut plexiglass chassis with an Atmel AVR development board, an OTS cash acceptor, and an OTS ticket printer). Our productivity has skyrocketed as a result, and management even lets us keep the cash we make. Most of the time, it gets reinvested back into the office as donuts or other treats though, so it's not like we're actually making a massive profit or anything.

    • This method is illegal in many countries, by the way.

      • This method is illegal in many countries, by the way.

        I'm honestly curious what kind of labor laws make it illegal for one employee of a company to charge another employee of that company for the privilege of interrupting them.

        Beyond situations where a) the one doing the charging is your boss, or b) the exchange of currency is illegal in your country, I'm having a hard time seeing it.

        • You cannot ask for money for a service that you're expected to offer for free, being colleagues and all.
          A co-worker is not your customer and there's no contract requesting that person to pay for the "privilege" of communicating with you.
          This is similar to me putting a road block in the middle of a road and asking for money to allow passage. it's not my road, it's not my right, it's illegal.

          A lawyer might shed more light on this, but really, if you think about it, why isn't everyone doing it already? The ans

          • I'm a lawyer, but not an expert in international labor law, so I'm afraid I can't shed much light on non-US jurisdictions. As for why it's not being done more widely, it is kind of a megadick maneuver that would probably get you fired anyplace where you don't have full support and latitude from your boss and your boss' boss.
        • Or if you were in a situation where the (repeated) price of admission dropped you below minimum wage for the pay period. Which would more be a failure on the needy person, but still not allowed.

    • by ledow ( 319597 )

      I have a user-error fund.

      It's a charity box with that written on.

      When you waste my time on something, I shake it.

      Working in a school, I make enough (and it's a voluntary donation as far as I'm concerned) to tide me through the half-term holidays with tea and biscuits.

  • by redcliffe ( 466773 ) on Monday May 08, 2017 @04:38AM (#54374753) Homepage Journal

    Unzip pants, start masturbating.

  • by Carewolf ( 581105 ) on Monday May 08, 2017 @04:40AM (#54374757) Homepage

    I think I chose not to swap out and when interrupted I stay in the working state and just stare blankly at the interruption until it goes away.

  • How do you feel about interrupt

    I don't care. I don't do bare-metal program

  • I work in a cubicle environment and have done so for most of my professional life and it's been my experience that there is little you can do to stop interruptions. If you are the kind of person who is insanely bothered by interruptions, can't stand the sound of people punching a keyboard, drinking coffee, munching on a donut, stirring a cup of tea with a metal spoon, slurping same, phones ringing, ..., etc... you can either try to get a new job with a company that offers its workers their own private oasis
    • by skam240 ( 789197 )

      Before I even got anywhere deep into your post I decided you need to learn how to use paragraphs. I'm not a Nazi on grammar or anything but massive, unorganized, blocks of text arent very readable. I would imagine anything you might have issue with in that block might be improved by revisiting a writing class.

    • by Bigbutt ( 65939 )

      Investigate how to build a sound proofed box for the ringing ones. Padded box for the vibrating one.

      [John]

    • There is very little you can do to force your co-workers into stealth mode without it blowing back on you.

      That's more or less the standard conclusion most of us come to. What's frustrating about it is, I know I'm not giving my employer my best when 75% of my concentration is focused on drowning out distractions. There's a reason people take exams in silence. I'm working in a dystopian open-office where people are always walking by, talking on the phone, having hallway conversations, or talking on the phone. Nobody has complained about my work - as far as I can tell, they're happy with what I'm producing, b

  • On x86 this can be a chore as it needs to be done in assembly. Arm is a little easier with ISR declarations if you use the correct compiler extensions.

    • by scrib ( 1277042 )

      Thank you for this. I only read the comments on this question to find this answer! :)

  • I have pretty much given up trying to be 'productive' at work. As a team leader I am normally dealing with questions and interruptions the entire time I am in the office. Fortunately, our team decided on something we call Core Hours. If you are at work you need to be around between 10am and 3pm for collaboration. So you can start early and leave early, start late leave late or do what I do: spend time at work to deal with the team - go home early then do the 'real work' after the kids are in bed. Now i
  • I kill the poor guy usually.
  • The longest most of my colleagues have to concentrate on a single task might be 5 minutes, so they have no concept of how distracting it is to be interrupted. I've traced at least one bug that was caused by a persistent colleague trying to get me to do "something urgent".

    I've found a few methods for dealing with interruptions:
    1. Wear headphones - it makes you immediately less approachable, plus I don't hear (or can plausibly deny hearing somebody shout my name across the room). People are lazy, so if they n

    • That's pretty similar to what I do. Headphones are a great visual indicator for people to go somewhere else, so I wear a brightly colored set of ear buds if I really need to concentrate. (Sometimes I don't even turn the music on.) I shut off email when I need to limit my own self-interruptions.

      I've been there a while, so part of my job is to tell people where the sharp corners and little-known areas are. I'd rather clear up a misconception early and avoid a bigger problem later on. And I never want to be th

  • We have an open office plan, and what evolved organically was to use the person's headphone state as an indicator: if it covers both ears, the person is "in flow" and should not be interrupted, unless for high priority requests; if the headphone is off or only on one ear, the developer can be questioned freely.

  • Speaker-To-Animals said one thing more before he turned back to his table. "Louis Wu, I found your challenge verbose. In challenging a kzin, a simple scream of rage is sufficient. You scream and you leap."

    "You scream and you leap," said Louis. "Great."

  • by ledow ( 319597 )

    I tell people to fuck off, I'm busy.

    Or appropriately worded phrases to that effect.

    Is this really a problem for any sensible adult?

  • I install the programmer AI in docker, I can restart it immediately when it's interrupted.
  • I can already see the real use for this....

    So, you know..the company has been having hard times and there could be layoffs coming. I have noticed that Bob's light is always on, so I know he is working hard, all day long, while yours is off pretty often.

  • Other people working in fields that are more demanding of creative thought and productivity handle this without making such a big deal about it. "Programmers" give it a rest already. If you are unable to mute your phone's ringer and put up a "do not disturb" sign you are probably not very good at solving more complex issues.
    Of course, if you are in one of those trendy "open office" work areas, an LED just wont help.

  • There's a context switch penalty for everyone, which is (another) reason why our multitasking focused world produces crap outcomes at slow paces.

    It can work, sort of, if you do trivial tasks with little actual context change. But the more in-depth the actual tasks are and the more the actual context changes, the more time it takes to reconstruct the cognitive and structural environment the task requires.

    It's obvious for some physical tasks -- if you fix widgets and you only have room for one widget on your

  • Headset.... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by creimer ( 824291 ) on Monday May 08, 2017 @07:42AM (#54375299) Homepage
    I usually tap my headset to indicate I'm listening to the 30+ voices in an all-day conference call — and return to posting on Slashdot.
  • So all my tasks are interrupt service routines. There's no room for batch executions.

  • I gave up (Score:4, Insightful)

    by ka9dgx ( 72702 ) on Monday May 08, 2017 @08:14AM (#54375469) Homepage Journal

    After a few years of constant interruptions, I just gave up, and never attempted anything except under deadline pressure, which gave me the excuse required to push out interruptions.

    I've never been productive since.

  • I used to work in a test tools team and we'd get a lot of visitors wanting help interpreting test results and preferably fix their bugs for them. It was manageable until we got close to release. By that point our scrum master moved to the desk closest to the door and would intercept everyone coming into the room. He'd have them describe their issue to him and then he'd make the call whether to disturb anyone in the team. Still, there was almost constant talking in the room so headphones were a must.

    I've
  • by netsavior ( 627338 ) on Monday May 08, 2017 @09:25AM (#54375841)
    Since interrupt is/was the fastest cast type, I try to leave 2 untapped islands at all times, so I can cast a counter-spell in response to their interrupt, thus negating it and allowing me to get back to coding before I was ever interrupted.
  • For intense work: Office door is closed. IM turned off/existed. Calendar blocked off. Email turned off. Headphones on music I know helps. Phone on Do Not Disturb. I will use the pomodoro system. I also make every effort to stare intently at the screen and don't notice anyone who may be loitering in the hall, or recognize their presence.

    For day to day: No flashing email alerts. I do a daily todo list. I block off time in the calendar for working on projects so people don't "drop by" or think I'm free.

  • turn off chat apps...

  • soon programmers will be graded by the status of their flow light

  • When techno was blaring from my office, my co-workers, peers and underlings (in latter stages), knew that I was highly focused doing something very deep (either technical, managerial, or a combination). I just turned silent my cell-phone, minimized outlook, and closed the door (I had an open door policy), and presto! no interruptions.

    This, of course, was not overnight, and was aided by the fact that, while I had a cube at the begining of my career, we never worked on Open plan offices, therefore, some techn

  • I work in an open plan office, so I would say that my default state is 'interrupted'. I have to work at feeling uninterrupted so I can get work done. For instance, right now, even with headphones on, I can hear and feel the movement of people around me. There are conversations and distractions happening out of the corner of my eye. God forbid I'd like to work without wearing something on my head or plugging my ears.

    The open plan is an abomination and ruins productivity and eats money, but big companies don'

  • It's fairly simple. If you are being interrupted, ask people to stop, or to do so only at particular times. If they won't, then bring it up with management. If management won't support you, you need to find another job, because that's the only way you can get a positive working environment. One programmer will find it exceedingly difficult to change the culture of a company that doesn't value focused work.

  • I've been doing this for a long time, and it seems that long gone are the days when programmers merit an office, even a two-for, and now even our sound-dampening, can't-see-the-flow-of-traffic days are gone for some open plan layout where we're all sitting at bench tables and staring into the face of the person across from us, unable to work at anything less than 10% of our best.

    Since I can't control the environment much, I control me as much as I can. If working from home is a possibility, I do that as of

  • The further you go in your career - development lead, architect, etc. the interruptions only increase. The time you have for productive coding will drop to near zero unless you explicitly make the time. But yet if you stop coding, you will not be as familiar as you need to be with your domain. Here are some strategies that may help:
    * Schedule 1:1 meetings with yourself in a different area than you normally work. Be disciplined and use the time only for coding.
    * Come in earlier than anyone else. I f

It isn't easy being the parent of a six-year-old. However, it's a pretty small price to pay for having somebody around the house who understands computers.

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