Traffic Violations

A common subject of discussion among programmers (and those who work with them) is the need to preserve concentration and minimize interruption.  This isn’t unique to programmers, in fact anyone who’s tried to read a book can appreciate the frustration of someone walking up and talking to you while you’re deep in a world that only exists inside your head.

The default assumption is that people are jerks, and should learn to not interrupt others while they are concentrating, but from the outside it’s not always easy to tell when someone is “in the zone” vs. more interruptible activities.

Jamie and I were discussing the problem this morning and came up with the idea of having a visual indicator that reflected the state of someone so that it was unambiguous as to whether or not it was OK to interrupt them.  At her office she had instituted a traffic light-style system of red light/green light signs on office doors to communicate interruptability to other workers. This worked somewhat, but since the only cost to “running the light” was paid by the person who was trying to work, it wasn’t always effective at deterring others from interrupting.  Additionally, this relied on making sure the state of the sign was updated by the person in the office, which isn’t always an option in modern open-design (or public) workspaces.

So we came up with two ideas to improve on this system.  The first is to use a more portable and convenient indicator.  Since much of our time is spent on mobile devices, the red light/green light indicator could be incorporated in a case for the device, or even as an accessory (something that slips into the headphone port, etc.).  The same sort of indicator could be applied to a laptop or other device as well.

Secondly, just like a real traffic violation, institute a “ticket” system for blowing a light.  The simplest implementation could be based on salary (although any value system could be used).  Let’s say an interruption takes 30 minutes to recover from.  Add this to the duration of the interruption and multiply times the salary of the interrupted employee; the interruptor is then fined this amount.

There are of course times when interrupting someone’s concentration is important enough to justify the cost, and by implementing a system that associates a hard cost to these interruptions, the interruptor can make an educated decision as to if what they need is important enough to incur the expense.

There are of course cases where a system like this would be impractical, but we believe that implementing a system like this in the workplace and in the wider world could at least improve the situation and help preserve both the productivity of knowledge workers as well as reduce animosity of those (including their peers) who work with and around them.

- Jason