Technology changes so fast in our society, that our methodologies, procedures, and comfort zones often lags behind. I’ve discussed the lag in acceptance for Telecommuting in my article, Telecommuting: Old-thinking vs New-thinking as one example of societal trends not keeping up with technology.

Another, is in our form of communication. In the past, we communicated almost exclusively with telephones and in person discussions. Now, we have email, chat rooms, and IM. We can access fellow team members at our every whim, even when they are working remotely. But this luxury of communication has it’s drawbacks. We all struggle with distractions, and these forms of instant communication create even more than we would already have. Focusing on a single issue at a time is generally the best method of completing a task, but being bombarded constantly with requests for help on other issues from teammates, requests for status updates on tasks by project management, and spontaneous team brain storming and problem solving meetings all serve to derail us from our train of thought and prevent us from completing the task at hand.

There must times when team members are allowed to focus on their current task, without risk of interruption in thought process. When developers are problem solving, it takes some time for the brain to get into the problem, thoroughly digest it, and get the creative juices flowing to find a solution. But how any times have you been involved in this process, only to be called into a meeting, get involved in an email thread, or be bombarded suddenly with IMs?

The Getting Real ebook published by 37signals addresses this issue of allowing developers to get into the zone with some scheduled alone time. Alone time is one of the reasons telecommuting studies have shown increased productivity when employees are allowed to work from home. But, even telecommuters can be distracted when available by email, IM, and telephone. As the 37signals post on the subject says:

Getting in the zone takes time which is why interruption is your enemy. It’s like REM sleep – you don’t just go to REM sleep, you go to sleep first and you make you way towards REM. Any interruptions force you to start over. REM is where the real sleep magic happens. The alone time zone is where the real productivity happens.

Their team is separated by over 8 time zones (proving once again that teams do not have to share the same office to be productive and learn to work together), which naturally provides alone time. Their post goes on to say,

So, what do you do if you aren’t 8 time zones apart and forced into alone time? You require it. Set up a rule at work: make half of the day alone time. From 10am-2pm, no one can talk to one another (except during lunch). Or make the first half of the day alone. Or the last half. But make sure to make the alone time zone contiguous – interruptions kill productivity.

I agree with their suggestion to provide focus times for developers to be uninterrupted. It’s a necessary environment to provide for team members, whether working out of the same office or from home. It goes against the natural thinking we’ve developed over the course of our Industrial age, of clocking in and clocking out, working in the same room, face to face, and now with the latest technologies, reaching out to any team member at any time we see fit. But we must control this new technology to prevent it from interfering with our productivity, and to prevent information and communication overload. As well, we as individuals must take care to give ourselves time off from the constant flow of information, and that is the topic of a follow up post at 37signals titled, ‘Get off‘. In this post they make the case for getting offline at times to increase productivity and eliminate distractions:

See, there’s an inherent problem with always being online: you’re too connected. You wind up in the role of passive observer. Things come to you. You react instead of act. You can easily spend too much time “marking things as read”, reading RSS feeds, watching YouTube clips, or whatever else.

In summary, I recommend distinct times for brainstorming, training, planning, and then acting. During the phase of acting, we need alone time, without distraction from the constant flow of Internet information and communication. How each team chooses to implement this is up to them and their situation, but it’s worth considering. Many of our current methods and practices exist today only out of tradition. With the new technology we have today, it’s time to question that tradition, and use the technology in a way that benefits us, and doesn’t complicate our days and interfere with our goals.