When was the last time you worked uninterrupted for one hour?

An entire hour.

Much of the work technologists and other knowledge workers perform requires significant time to load context, think, and work out the solution. But frequently, we do not give people that time.

One of the most important transformations of my career happened in 2003 or so when I read Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams (DeMarco & Lister). The entire book is fantastic, but the relevant chapter here is Chapter 8 “You Never Get Anything Done around Here between 9 and 5.” They sought to answer the question of why workers in though-intensive positions were putting in so many extra hours.

The authors ran a productivity study and found environmental conditions mattered a lot between high and low performers:

Peopleware Table 8.3: Environments of the Best and Worst Performers in the Coding War Games
Peopleware Table 8.3: Environments of the Best and Worst Performers in the Coding War Games

They observed that available workspace, how quiet it is, and generally whether interruptions and distractions can be prevented correlated with coding productivity. Differences in programming language, years of experience, number of defects, and salary had little correlation with productivity in their study (see book for details).

This helped me recognize the problems created by interruptions in my own work environment.

While DeMarco and Lister did not claim a better environment caused better performance, but this looked like an important enough difference that I would experiment in my own environment.

One of the things I did to understand the severity of the problem was to track how many uninterrupted hours I experienced in a week using a sticky note on my desk. It looked something like this:

Log of Uninterrupted Hours (Weekly)
Log of Uninterrupted Hours (Weekly)

This data was not part of a larger ‘time tracking’ scheme (which often measures the wrong thing). This data was for me to use as part of a conversation with my manager our weekly one-on-one.

I collected the data by marking down whether I had spent an hour working on the official task I was supposed to be doing before lunch and at the end of the day, the latter prompted by a reminder.

The first few weeks quantified the pain I was feeling.

I recorded low single-digit hours of uninterrupted time as a ‘Senior’ Software Engineer doing ‘Critical’ work. I’m talking 3 or 5 hours per week from the hours of 9-5. I recall one week where I had zero uninterrupted hours during the ‘official’ work day. This was in a ’40 hour work week’ where I was scheduled full-time! And yes, that organization was chaotic at that time.

My manager and I discussed this data helped in my weekly one-on-one and used it to transform my work experience. Here’s what we did.

First, we limited work in progress by reducing my official development task concurrency to 1 and added a standing ‘support’ task in our project plans to account for the “off books” operations work I was doing. That work was valuable and needed to be officially recognized. Note that this was prior to the ‘revolution’ of observing team velocity and formal WIP limits in tech projects, though I was certainly trying to apply the Theory of Constraints.

Second, I blocked out noon-2PM on my calendar. This helped ensure I got lunch and some uninterrupted work time to focus while many people were already out. Subsequently, I evolved this to blocking out 1-3pm Monday-Friday for myself and admitting important meetings when they couldn’t be avoided. This helped a lot! I even experimented with a Sunday through Thursday schedule (generally, I do not recommend doing this unless this is a means to prioritizing your ‘outside of work’ life over work). On down the road, I helped teams formalize this approach, often extending to “work from home” Tuesdays & Thursdays.

The improvements in productivity, flexibility, and happiness yielded from this uninterrupted time is stunning in my experience, at least until getting work done during work hours becomes normal.

Now, I’m not saying these exact solutions will work for you. However, there’s no getting around the facts that people need to:

  1. focus and actually work to get things done
  2. ‘normal’ working hours are finite

So, the next time you find yourself thinking no one gets anything done during working hours, consider:

  1. thinking of how to illustrate that to your team and leadership
  2. how you can protect the most critical resource your team has: Time