Modern work requires attention. Constant alerts steal it

Attention—the time and freedom to focus—is your team’s most valuable resource.

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In tough economic times, everyone looks for ways to lower costs without impacting productivity (heck, if we’re doing wish lists, let’s improve productivity, too). And this is one of those times, with many companies making the hard decision to lay off workers and worrying about the impact of new AI technologies.

Productivity is definitely top of mind, but whether productivity can be measured is an open question. Many organizations, however, have been measuring how fast their teams ship fixes and features to your customer, which is usually called development velocity. Google devised the DORA metrics to put concrete numbers to this abstract concept.

There are a lot of factors that affect development velocity: CI/CD pipelines, code quality, developer experience, and more. In this article, I want to discuss that last one, as real velocity means solving the problems that haven’t yet been solved. Hard problems need focused, sustained attention from developers. This attention—the time and freedom to focus—is your team’s most valuable resource.

We often describe working with focused attention as a flow state. As described in the book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a flow state allows one to become fully engaged and focused on the task at hand. It leads to better results and greater happiness. But it can only happen when you have the attention to focus fully on whatever it is that lies before you.

Why can’t we focus at work?

The contemporary workspace, whether in-person or remote, is full of demands on your attention. We have chat programs, email inboxes, and project management apps all throwing notifications our way. In offices, you have other people tapping you on the shoulder and creating general noise (and woe betide those in open offices). Working remotely avoids some of these, but places the entire communication burden on chat and email applications with their little red notifications. These apps promise asynchronous communications, but that doesn’t always happen in practice.

On top of that, we regularly juggle multiple tasks simultaneously. Our attention is pulled in multiple directions, regardless of whether you live an inbox zero life or not. Flow states require sustained attention over time, and our days get chopped into pieces by interruptions and meetings. Researchers at UC Irvine found that on average, office workers switched tasks or were interrupted about every three minutes. Recovering from those interruptions could take workers up to 20 minutes to get back to where they were. In fact, these interruptions could cost individuals up to six hours every day.

When we have multiple demands on our attention, we try multitasking—splitting our spotlight or shifting it rapidly to focus on the many tasks that come our way. The truth is, we’re bad at multitasking. There’s a mental cost to switching tasks, and that cost translates to up to 40% more time to complete the tasks. Small errors of inattention slip in—typos, missed cues, and quickly forgotten details. Even trying to do only two things at once can mean you do both badly.

All these interruptions can lead to greater stress and anxiety. Depending on the task, productivity may not suffer, but interruptions may cause us to work faster, which leads to greater time pressure, frustration, and stress. It takes more effort to complete the same amount of work with interruptions in the mix. In the longer-term, enduring regular interruptions—up to 85 per day—can cause decreased job satisfaction and burnout.

Stress and anxiety form a feedback loop. Both can cause attentional problems, like difficulty concentrating. Without the ability to pay attention to what you’re working on, you may forget steps or not remember solutions that you’ve found. Anxiety has been linked to memory lapses, and if you are constantly forgetting information you’ve received from those chat messages that interrupt people, you may end up interrupting your coworkers over and over.

It turns out that those coworkers you interrupt are usually the most senior employees at a company. They’ve been there the longest, they have the most historical knowledge about processes and tools. And they suffer the greatest number of interruptions from their coworkers.

There are no notifications in heaven

Let’s back up. It’s pretty easy to complain about what’s terrible, but harder to imagine what the better world looks like.

In Flow, Csikszentmihalyi talks about optimal experience as one in which the individual has control over their moment-to-moment experience, bringing their consciousness into a state of order. What makes us miserable about our current state of constant interruptions is that it destroys our control. Our attention is not under our command; instead, it ends up being at the mercy of notification on top of notification, multiple applications chiming for attention. Wrangling them under your control seems to be the root of the solution.

To do good work during your day, you need some time where you aren’t doing work. Downtime is essential to reducing stress, avoiding burnout, and maintaining a healthy brain. But as we’re all working from home more, work creeps into our home life. Our phones are filled with the same notifications as our work computers except that they can reach us at any hour. You can—and probably should—mute and ignore these notifications after hours; some chat programs set working hours during which notifications will be sent.

Our always-on work culture doesn’t always let us ignore notifications, even if it isn’t your turn to monitor incident alerts. Many governments have started passing right-to-disconnect legislation to allow employees to ignore any work-related communications that come after working hours. At the very least, we can have control over what we do in our free time.

But what about within the workday? There are ways to recover some measure of control over the attention of your day. You can use “timeboxing,” where you place a meeting on your calendar that is just for you, a time where everyone understands that you will not respond to notifications. You can be disciplined about statuses and notification settings, indicating when you are available and when you are not. But these techniques only try to manage notifications; what if you could reduce them?

In the end, we may want to rethink why we have notifications in the first place, same as some companies are doing with meetings. Every email, every chat notification is an invitation to collaborate and share information. This is great! Collaboration is a force multiplier that increases employee effectiveness. But notifications are synchronous; they demand attention right now. Better collaboration lets all stakeholders come to the table when they are ready, either scheduled so they can plan around it or asynchronous so they can address it when they have the attention to give it.

A quieter, more focused workspace

We needed to stay productive by working in the ways that add value instead of reacting to pings, dings, and shoulder taps. That’s mostly writing code, supporting infrastructure, collaborating on solutions, and sharing our hard-won knowledge. One of the reasons that chat apps (and email, to a lesser extent) drain so much of our attention in modern workplaces is that they have become the central application in our workflow, especially for those last two items. Chat apps are immediate; they want your attention right now.

Changing workflows is hard; I’ve seen how developers work in the absence of processes and it’s all in the chat channels. Implementing a new process is hard; the chat workflow works, albeit in a way that isn’t great for some of our other work. We’ve seen the impact that the Stack Overflow community has had on programmers around the world, and have tried to replicate that for organizations with Stack Overflow for Teams. Of course, we have integrations with many of the major chat programs; think of it as using the Strangler Fig pattern to change workflows.

There are plenty of other productivity applications that are looking to move the relevant workflows into spaces that are less attention hungry. They have integrations to your favorite chat app too. Of course, the risk here is that your app becomes absorbed in the chat app workflow instead of moving you away from it.

Ultimately, the problems of attention drain have cultural solutions. You can get the right tools to support that culture, but there’s two questions that an organization needs to answer: (a) How do you collaborate? and (b) How do you share knowledge? So long as the answers to these involve some analogue or digital version of tapping a coworker on the shoulder to get their attention, we’ll remain distracted and constantly trying to get back to the context we had before our interruptions.

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