How to Get Interrupt-Free Time

July 25, 2008 at 9:20 am | Posted in Attention Management, interruption science | Leave a comment

So, you’ve got some important documents, code, forms, or whatever that needs to get done and demands undivided attention?  You’ve started on this task a few times already, but keep getting interrupted or distracted and there’s still a daunting amount left?  What you need is a solid block of interrupt-free time and as few distractions as possible.  This can help you get the work done on time, with less stress and higher quality.  Ray Ozzie gave a good example of his approach in an interview: “When I was coding I had a four hour rule that said don’t code unless you know you’ll have four hours of contiguous time because otherwise you’re just introducing more bugs.”

Here are my tips on how to get that contiguous time:

Disclaimer: This has to be an important enough task that reasonable people will understand being blocked so you can get it done.  This assumes you aren’t expecting any positive interruptions by others working with you on the task that may interrupt with useful information.  So you’re working solo at this point. And finally, this assumes you aren’t on primary support for the air traffic control system, a surgeon, or Jack Bauer: you don’t get any interruptions that must be handled or someone dies, countries fall into enemy hands, billion dollar systems come crashing to a halt, etc.  Treat this like you’re on vacation or on a plane – somehow things would survive until you checked messages that night.

At Your Desk

  • Close your email client. Yes, you can do it! Just click that close button in the upper right corner
  • Turn off mobile devices (I recommend off, not just silence, so you’re less tempted to check them)
  • Close every app on your desktop not related to the task at hand (that means no Twitter, no browser if you don’t need it for the task, etc.)
  • Forward your phone to voicemail
  • Set the “busy” indicator on your instant messaging client
  • Block the time out on your calendar. I usually use “{project name} work time” or sometimes just “BLOCK”
  • You may want to wear headphones and listen to some non-distracting music.  For me that means no lyrics, no radio since it has commercials, and nothing SO good that the music itself distracts me
  • Some people put up a physical barrier.  If you have an office with a door, fine.  But I think a chair or piece of tape blocking a cube just invites giggles

Away From Your Desk

If you can get away from your desk, that’s even better.  Find a place no one will think to look for you and away from distractions.  Examples include reserving a small conference room (be courteous – if they are in high demand I wouldn’t do this), the company cafeteria during the afternoon, or sections of small tables and chairs tucked away in a wing of the building where people don’t know you.

Away From Your Office Building

If you need more than a day of time, trying to block everyone from coming by your office or cube may not work, so I’d recommend trying to work offsite.  This could be a coffee shop, library, or at home.  One time I was presented with a daunting coding task that was dropped on me with a 2 day deadline.  I negotiated that I wanted to work from home the next two days to get it done.  At that time, my home was very quiet and I’m pretty good about not getting distracted.  And I was the solo programmer on this and could work on a local version of the server. It worked beautifully and I was done on time and with no bugs in my code.


I hope this helps you.  I normally write about Enterprise Attention Management, but a little personal attention management now and then is a good thing too! If you have any additional tips to share, feel free to click on “comments”.


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