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Productivity: This I Believe

Mark Mzyk | May 14, 2009

Where you work makes a huge difference in productivity.  This I believe.

Distractions prevent work.  It’s simple flight-or-fight response.  If someone walks by you, or you hear a noise, at some level, you have to respond; there is always the chance you will eaten by a grue.  It’s human nature.  It has served us well thus far in history, but in the information age it’s not the best adaptation.

Evolution has also, however, provided a counter to our fickle fight-or-flight nature: it’s called change blindness1.

The concept is simple: when your attention is intently focused on one thing, you fail to notice other things around you.

With these concepts in mind, it follows that there are two ways to avoid distractions:

Get rid of the distractions


Focus your attention

In an office, what is the best way to get rid of distractions?  Give everyone a private office.  It’s the Joel Spolsky model.  By walling everyone off, you’ve now created huge inertia for one person to bother another.  Distractions drop dramatically.

But most of us live in the real world.  Bosses are cheap, offices cost money, and no matter how many times they are told they can make x times the amount of money if they gave everyone private offices because everyone would be more productive, well, I already said they’re cheap (Joel excepted).  This means most of us work in wide open areas sitting next to five other people, of which two are carrying on a conversation, one types too loud, another has their headphones turned up too loud, and yet another is chewing gum while slurping coffee too loud, all while you can hear the boss reprimanding your coworker over the cube wall, too loudly (and uncomfortably, but you can’t stop trying to listen).

The distractions can’t be gotten rid of, but option two still offers hope: focus your attention.  How do you accomplish that?  Paired programming.  When working with another person, the second person focuses your attention for you.  As your mind starts to wander, you’ll be pulled back to the task by the other person.  Once it’s their turn to be tempted by distraction, you’ll return the favor.  With an open office, it’s your only hope of maintaining focus throughout the day.

If you aren’t lucky enough to have a private office, or to pair program, then your productivity is screwed.  This I believe.

  1. I recently discovered this concept from a Wired article by Jonah Lehrer on Teller and magic. []

Filed in: General.


  1. Comment by Chris Ess:

    In an office environment where headphones are allowed, why not use a pair yourself? Headphones that won’t interfere with your co-workers are reasonably easy to come by. (I also believe that music helps me work, or, at least, doesn’t hinder my work.)

    May 18, 2009 @ 09:18
  2. Comment by Mark Mzyk:

    That’s certainly an option, but I don’t think it really solves the problem. It does prevent some distraction by sound: I think to reduce most of the sound distraction one would need noise canceling headphones. However, it still does nothing to prevent the distraction of people walking by, or other distracting movement.

    I just don’t by that headphones are the answer. In a really open office, there are times you have to crank the volume up to the point you start to damage your hearing, because the general noise level around you is so great. It isn’t an ideal situation.

    May 18, 2009 @ 10:42
  3. Comment by Chris Ess:

    Noise-canceling headphones would help with your second point, I think.

    It’s true that headphones will not decrease the distraction of movement. However, when “in the zone,” I find I don’t notice movement distractions. This can sometimes be a problem because I don’t react well to being surprised by people.

    Unfortunately, my big distraction wouldn’t be fixed by pair programming or headphones: the phone. I get called for things by co-workers that could easily be asked over email. (I’ve proposed putting together an intra-office IM system to help with that.) And part of my job is phone support, which makes the phone inescapable anyway.

    May 18, 2009 @ 10:50
  4. Comment by Mark Mzyk:

    I don’t have an answer for the phone issue, other than, if you can avoid it, don’t have a phone.

    As for being in the zone: you’re right. When you’re in the zone you don’t notice distractions. The hard part is getting in the zone. That’s what either having a private office or paired programming helps with: getting in the zone.

    May 19, 2009 @ 16:20
  5. Comment by James Moore:

    “In an office environment where headphones are allowed, why not use a pair yourself? ”

    Because music is a huge distraction. You’re just substituting problems.

    White noise, maybe, but I think that would get tiresome very quickly.

    February 16, 2010 @ 16:40