Interruptions and "in the zone"

I hate to get a phone call or an instant messaging popup on my desktop. It usually (perhaps always) breaks me out of the "zone". What is the zone? Being "in the zone" means I have all the bits of the problem I'm working in my head have tuned the rest of the world out and can actually be productive. We all know knowledge workers work best by being in the zone or getting into the flow where they are fully concentrated on their work and have fully tuned out their environment. Writers, software developers, engineers, scientist, and even basketball players will tell you about being in the zone.

Getting into the zone is not easy. Various places on the web claim from 15 to 30 minutes to get into the zone. Obviously, the time is dependent on the complexity of the problem and the mental state of the person. If I'm tired, it's harder for me to get in the zone. If I know I'm going to have to stop and attend a typically agendaless meeting in an hour or so, will it's sometimes hard to get the motivation to even start.

Maker Schedule vs Manager Schedule

This leads into concept that Paul Graham called the maker's schedule (as opposed to the manager's schedule, where task switches are the norm). Personally, I clearly work on the maker's schedule. Having an interruption is like throwing an exception. It doesn't merely cause me to switch tasks, it changes the entire mode in which I work. My brain doesn't save stack frames properly (or at all). When I return from the exception, there is no where to return, so I have to drop core and start over. That takes effort. If I know ahead of time that I will have to stop for a meeting, or for lunch, or to leave to go to the house, it sometimes seems like wasted effort to even attempt to get back in the zone. I don't have any concrete measurements, but if feels like I get more done when I work from home and tune out the workplace than when I go to the cubical farm and have the noise from other cubicals, people walking by (not stopping, just walking down the aisle), constantly in my head. Wish my brain had a feature where it would make all of that into white noise.

How do I deal with this?

Apparently, not very well. I keep the ringer silenced on my phone quite often. Work gets bent out of shape at times over this. The spousal unit goes ballistic if I don't answer the phone or a text message immediately. I don't have have voice mail setup on my cell. My preferred way of being contacted is email, preferably encrypted. I realize this creates an impedance mismatch between myself and people who want to contact me primarily over non email channels. Perhaps that's because I'm an intp and have my own way of looking at things.

I don't like phone calls, unless they are prearranged with a purpose, otherwise it is just like and angendaless meeting.


Given that you don't know what I'm doing, try not to interrupt me. I understand that you thing you are more important than me (you aren't) or that what you need to tell me is so important (it isn't) I have to stop what I'm doing to do what you want. Emails are nice (except at work, where outlook insists on interrupting me, and I have to use outlook at work because they make me. I prefer to not use proprietary software anywhere, but that's a different topic) and can even be encrypted so prism can't read them. Voice mails, text messages, and many forms of instant messaging, not so much.

Emails (outside of work) will not interrupt me. Neither will IRC messages. My Emac's status line keeps be abreast of those things. It doesn't beep, doesn't pop up things. It's just there in my subconscious, along with anything else on the status bar. Emacs is nice that way. It doesn't cause an exception.

So don't IM me, telling me hello, or asking if I'm there. If what you got is so important it just has to be over IM, just tell me what it is. Skip the niceties or the time waste or whatever the hello, or are you there questions are supposed to achieve. You've already interrupted me, just tell me what you want, I might can help. I will not (usually) respond to a hello or an are you there? question on IM.

Please don't leave me a voice mail (you can't on my personal phone) asking me to call you back without telling me what you want. I won't return the call.

Also don't send me an email asking me if it's ok to call. It isn't. If the email specifies what you with to talk about, fine. I'll send an email asking for clarification or more information or whatever. If there's sufficient interest, then we can setup a properly agendad (what is the verb form of agenda?) meeting over the phone.

I usually have more tolerance for family, peers, coworkers, and friends (and occasionally recruiters). Family, peers, coworkers, and friends also are used to my idiosyncrasies.

The initial impetus for this post was to rant about phone calls, but it evolved into a ranty post about interruptions. I still don't have a really good way to deal with interruptions. There is room for improvement on my usual workflow...