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By Greg Horsfall, Senior Business Analyst at Nimble Approach.

Taking a break from what you’re working on is healthy, it gives you time to rest, reset and then come back to the work with fresh eyes. But not managing focus and getting distracted when you’re in the middle of something can be incredibly costly to your efforts to getting things done.

Distractions during a sprint or a project are a hidden cost – paid for in engineer, product owner, scrum master, or even stakeholder time. And it’s not just the time taken to deal with the distraction. The real time cost is getting “back in the zone”.

Every time you’re stopped from what you’re working on to deal with something new, it takes time to get back into what you were previously working on. You’ve got to familiarise yourself with where you got to and even what you were working towards. And the more complicated the task, the harder it is to get back into the relevant frame of mind, to find the right thread of your thoughts to pick up where you left off. Even if you were half way through writing a sentence, coming back to it five minutes later, you may have lost the words you wanted to use to emphasise the point you were making.

The Wall Street Journal estimates that the cost per distraction is up to 23 minutes. That’s 23 minutes to deal with the distraction, but then also to get back into your work, to find where you were, to refocus on the problem at hand, and hopefully be in the frame of mind you were in before you became distracted.

Exercise – See how distraction makes you work slower

To see first hand the impact of distractions, and the importance of being able to focus, you can try the following simple exercise. Download the context switching exercise pdf and print it out or fill it out on screen. You’re also going to need:

  1. A pen (if your printing it out.)
  2. A 60 second timer.

Exercise 1. Context switching.

In Exercise 1, you do the following, in this order:

  1. Write from A to T following the alphabet in the first column.
  2. Write from 1 to 20 in standard numbers in the second column.
  3. Write from Z to G following the alphabet in reverse order in the third column.
  4. Write from 1 to 20 in roman numerals in the forth column.

When the time runs out you stop. Don’t worry if you don’t finish all four columns. If you make a mistake, don’t worry about it, just continue to the end of the timer.

Exercise 2. One at a time.

Now moving on to Exercise 2, hide what you did for Exercise 1 so that you can’t copy from that page. Instead of filling in each column down focusing on the alphabet, or numbers one thing at a time, you will complete one row at a time. E.g. Going left to right completing the first row (A, 1, Z, I), then the second row under that, etc.

Again, give yourself 60 seconds, moving on if you make a mistake. 

The result of managing focusing?

Once you’re done, compare the two exercises for how far you were able to get in Exercise 1 compared to Exercise 2. Chances are that you managed to complete a lot more of Exercise 1, and this is because you were able to focus on one thing at a time.

A busy desk with lots of things around it

How do you manage focus and distractions?

Knowing the impact of distractions doesn’t actually help you or your team to stay focused. The best approach is avoiding distractions in the first place. So what can you do, no matter your role within the engineering team, to minimise the number of distractions?

  1. Utilise your existing ceremonies.
    1. If in your Daily Stand-Up you raise any questions, you can get answers immediately after the meeting rather than asking different people different questions throughout the day.
    2. You can also let the rest of the team know if you’re focusing on something specific today and ask to not be disturbed for a period.
  2. Ensure that meetings are focused. This means that meetings:
    1. Have a clear purpose and objective.
    2. Are supported with an agenda.
    3. And importantly, only the necessary people are invited. Meetings with 20 people in attendance, but where only 3 people are engaged are causing distractions for the other 17 people.
  3. Communicate focus times to the rest of the team and even stakeholders.
    1. You could agree with your team that if someone has their headphones on fully, that means they are fully focused and should not be distracted. Headphones that are partially on could mean that they are open to distractions, and no headphones means that whilst they’re working, they can field questions and help other people without impeding their own work.
    2. Set your Slack/Teams/other work chat status to “Focus Time” including pausing notifications.
    3. Block out chunks of time in your calendar giving yourself a period of time without meetings to focus on one particular thing.
  4. Non-meeting days.
    1. This won’t work for everyone, or maybe entire days aren’t feasible, but designating a day within your team where meetings aren’t scheduled can help to give you the time and space needed to focus on something.
  5. Designate a single point of contact in the team so that they can field requests from outside of the team without distracting others in the team.
    1. This could be your Scrum Master/ADL, or your Product Owner for incoming requests.
    2. You could alternate who is the point of contact as long as it is clear to people outside of the team who to contact so that they’re not distracting the wrong person.
  6. Communicate when you will be available.
    1. As important as it is to identify when you will be focused and busy. Letting people know when they will actually be able to get hold of you gives them confidence that they will be able to go through what they need to with you at some point.
    2. Equally important is to have an “emergency contact method”. Sometimes things can’t wait for you to be free, and if people know that they can still get hold of you even when you’re focusing to address those moments, they are less likely to create a background noise of distraction around you.
  7. Block out time to be accessible.
    1. Instead of constantly checking Slack, set a timeframe that you will go back to Slack and go through all of your messages.
    2. If you’re in an office, leave some post-it’s on your desk. If someone needs to talk to you whilst you’re focusing, they can leave a small note for you and then you can handle that when you’re available again.
  8. Work in time blocks.
    1. The Pomodoro Technique utilises 25 minute blocks, this likely isn’t enough time for complex tasks, but set a consistent time block and work towards those. This fits in with some of the above points.
  9. Ensure that all verbal and non-verbal signals are agreed within the team.
    1. If different people are using different signals, it will just lead to confusion and more distractions.
  10. Take breaks!
    1. For your own sanity, take breaks. Focusing on one thing for too long can lead to tunnel vision, so taking a break every now and then, on your own terms, means that you can come back to the task with fresh eyes.
Guinea pig on the desk

It’s important to note that anyone in a team can lose significant time and effort to distractions. It’s not a cost charged purely to a developer or tester. So whilst the majority of this blog has been focused on what you can do to prevent distractions to yourself, it is also important to recognise when others in your team or a different team are focused, and when you can help them by not distracting them.

A lot of the above comes down to clear and active communication. If you need help getting started with this, or finding a framework that works for you, then get in touch.

Authors Bio

Greg Horsfall, Senior Business Analyst at Nimble Approach.

Greg has over 10 years of IT delivery experience in a wide variety of industries. He has a passion for enabling delivery teams to realise and deliver real value, through effective communication, process adoption and leadership.