Interrupting Makers with Meetings

There are two types of people in your office, Makers and Managers. And scheduling a meeting with Maker can kill that person’s effectiveness for the day, according to Paul Graham.

I find one meeting can sometimes affect a whole day. A meeting commonly blows at least half a day, by breaking up a morning or afternoon. But in addition there’s sometimes a cascading effect. If I know the afternoon is going to be broken up, I’m slightly less likely to start something ambitious in the morning.

Makers do the work — at Pop Art, our Makers are designers, developers, programmers, writers, designers and media planners. These people create the work that ends up online. Here’s how Graham describes the conundrum Makers face.

They generally prefer to use time in units of half a day at least. You can’t write or program well in units of an hour. That’s barely enough time to get started.

Managers, however, live and die in increments of an hour. Seeking information, checking in, status updates, reaching consensus, making a decision, delegating are all reasons for managers to call a meeting. Boom!

Interruptions are Relative

If a meeting is advancing the project, it must be a net positive, right? No. Interruptions are relative. An older article on the cost of workplace interruptions (yes, I’m now calling your status update meeting an interruption) qualifies them as such:

  • when I interrupt someone (a “good” interruption)
  • when someone interrupts me (a “bad” interruption)

Take a look at this list of Top 10 office interruptions: which would be good and which would be bad? When is an interruption really a collaboration?

But Seriously, Your Meetings Are Killing My Productivity

Are the Makers and Creators being overly sensitive? I say no. A News.com article cites “In Praise of Slowness,” saying:

The typical office worker is interrupted every three minutes by a phone call, e-mail, instant message or other distraction. The problem is that it takes about eight uninterrupted minutes for our brains to get into a really creative state.

An even more alarming article from (my favorite) journalist Clive Thompson in The New York Times Magazine cited a UC Irvine study that puts interruptions in stark terms:

Each employee spent only 11 minutes on any given project before being interrupted and whisked off to do something else. What’s more, each 11-minute project was itself fragmented into even shorter three-minute tasks, like answering e-mail messages, reading a Web page or working on a spreadsheet. And each time a worker was distracted from a task, it would take, on average, 25 minutes to return to that task.

Leon Ho over at Life Hack did the math on an 8-hour work day:

(8 * 60 / (11+25) * 11)

There are only roughly 2 hours on quality project time. Think about this figure verse [sic] the rest of 6 hours.

And a 2005 study from Basex titled “The Cost of Not Paying Attention: How Interruptions Impact Knowledge Worker Productivity,” puts the cost at more than half a trillion dollars a year.

Unnecessary interruptions consume about 28 percent of the knowledge worker’s day, which translates to 28 billion lost hours to companies in the United States alone.  At an average cost per hour of $21 (Bureau of Labor Statistics, June 2005), that costs U.S. companies $588 billion per annum.

Whoa.

As an Interactive Pro, How Do You Deal with Interruptions?

Makers in an interactive setting face additional pressures — the expectation to participate in interruptive social media like Twitter, instant messaging, Facebook, Yammer, etc.

(Just as I wrote that, for some reason I felt compelled to check Twitter. Weird.)

That pressure requires creative solutions. Microsoft Labs created Scalable Fabric to minimize open windows. Apple created Spaces. A search for the “inbox zero” mantra of “Do it, Delegate it, Delete It” turned up about 1.3 million results.

Beating Interruptions in the Office

Productivity is a huge business in the U.S., and there’s a reason. Productive employees get noticed, get promoted, and retire early to beautiful privately owned islands. I can’t say I’m the master of productivity, but here’s a few tips I’ve been using lately with good success.

  1. Turn off IM. This has been a tough one for me, as I thoroughly enjoy chatting about work (and other stuff).
  2. Block out work time. If I have to do some serious writing, I put it into my calendar. (I also put my gym time in there.)
  3. Go away. People swing by my desk all the time with questions, concerns, ideas, or just to talk. I can minimize these distractions by leaving.
  4. Say no. So let’s say I’m working at my desk and have found a groove. Someone drops by and asks, “can I interrupt you?” I’m trying now to say “in an hour?”

My role here is a hybrid manager/maker. Graham’s suggestion of “office hours” seems to me an excellent idea to avoid office interruption, though I have no idea how to make it happen short of blocking out all my time except a few hours a day.

What about you? What are your biggest distractions and interruptions? How do you deal with them?


3 Comments on Interrupting Makers with Meetings

  1. Like you said, I like to find a coffee shop or Library to zone out at and crank away. I find the atmosphere of all the people working with headphones on helpful.

    I also will often wear headphones in the office (sometimes with no music playing!). I think this sends a message to coworkers that Im in the zone.

  2. [...] Cross-posted from my Pop Art blog. [...]

  3. At Intel we’ve helped this by having a Work From Home day once a week. This works for most people although not all; less interruptions and no commute time, so more work time.

    Others work from the cafe for half a day – I know some design engineers that will go to the corner of the cafeteria, put on their headphones and get a lot done – again no phone or walk-by distractions.

    IM isn’t a distraction because the Intel culture really respects the IM settings. If it says ‘busy’, no one will be bothering you for a quick question except your boss or when there’s a major fire to put out.

    Most of the cultural practices of this kind of major corporation is built around engineers, so obviously it doesn’t work for everyone here (myself included at times), nor might it for other different kinds of organizations. But it’s something to think about – how does one build a productive culture of actual work v communication?