You're harshing my flow, man[ager]!
April 16, 2010 12:13 PM   Subscribe

I have a manager who constantly interrupts my attention-hungry programming work with easy, quick tasks that she believes "will just take a second, no problem." This destroys my productivity. How does the hive mind deal with this?

My manager has no technical background—finds tables in Word a challenge—and seems to view blocks of time as irrelevant. When I told her I needed to take Fridays and only work on programming projects in order to get them done by the deadline, she asked "How long on Fridays?"

This is killing my morale. Programming is my favorite part of my job, and it seems as if my direct supervisor has no comprehension of "flow" or how harmful multitasking is when you're doing something that takes a great deal of mental effort.
posted by sonic meat machine to Work & Money (35 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know whether this is an option for you, but when I'm doing something involved at work and don't want to be bothered I will make myself unavailable by hiding in an office or conference room. Out of sight, out of mind, and such.
posted by prunes at 12:19 PM on April 16, 2010

As with many things in life, I think solving this problem will come down to communication. Talk with your boss, respectfully, about your need for spend uninterrupted blocks of time on programming work. Let her know that you will get more done this way. Suggest ways to accomplish her little things that will still give you your big blocks of time. Maybe she could email the little tasks to you, and you could promise to take a break from programming every few hours (at a time that makes sense in your workflow) to deal with them. Don't accuse her of being a bad manager or not getting it, just help her understand that you will be a more effective employee if she can work with you on changing the environment a bit.
posted by vytae at 12:21 PM on April 16, 2010

I work in an office where many people have taken to posting sheets with "open door" hours. Something like "Open Door 11-12, 4-5 for any other tasks please schedule an appointment or send an email". Most of them literally open and close their doors. With minimal hints "this sounds like something I could do for you, I'll see you at my next break" it seems to have worked. Your case is a bit different though since it's your manager.

Maybe also try giving her an estimate on time lost "Could I do it at x? If I break here, It'll take at least 45 minutes to pick this thread back up?".
posted by syntheticfaith at 12:31 PM on April 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

She needs to read this.
posted by kindall at 12:36 PM on April 16, 2010 [11 favorites]

Seconding syntheticfaith. You should operate like a professor, with blocks of time available for interruption, and others where you are simply unavailable. This is easier if you have your own office and can shut the door during off-hours. Post a friendly sign (no all-caps or Comic Sans!) with the times you're available.
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 12:37 PM on April 16, 2010

I've been there, and it's frustrating - I've also been on the other side of it, being a manager asking programmers to interrupt what they're doing to take care of other stuff that they didn't think was important or part of their job. These situations were tough, too, because I'd been on the other side of it and know how annoying it is to be interrupted from thought intensive work. I think the only thing you can do (short of finding another job) is to talk to your boss about it - unfortunately, she's your boss and while programming is your "favorite part" its still work, right? We get paid because it's work - so, while I sympathize and think you should try to figure out some way to accommodate the desires of both your boss and you, you may just have to suck it up and keep doing what she tells you. Good luck, though, I know it's a pain in the ass.
posted by drobot at 12:40 PM on April 16, 2010

Find a creative, non-confrontational way to remind her of Mihály Csíkszentmihályi's concept of flow.

In particular:

2: Concentrating, a high degree of concentration on a limited field of attention (a person engaged in the activity will have the opportunity to focus and to delve deeply into it).

9: People become absorbed in their activity, and focus of awareness is narrowed down to the activity itself, action awareness merging.

As a manager, she will have studied motivational theories (hopefully) so this will be pretty basic stuff she already knows. Once she understands that you enjoy programming and need to be in the zone to do your best work, she'll figure out for herself how important concentration, focus and becoming absorbed are to your productivity (and her bottom line).
posted by stringbean at 12:43 PM on April 16, 2010

I'm self-employed but have a few ongoing/long term clients and I have this problem all the time.
When they ask why big project x is taking so long/isn't going to be done on time I explain (as politely as possible) its because I had to break of to work on little task a,b and c, usually they get the hint - for a while at least.

These days I just have my MSN and Googletalk set to 'appear offline' and its amazing how dramatically the frequency of these "really important" but "trivial" tasks has dropped now that clients have to email me about them if they want it done. Apparently they weren't actually all that important at all, they were so unimportant that they don't even bother mentioning it if I'm not available "right now" to deal with it.

So in my experience the most effective strategy is to be unavailable, if you can't make yourself unavailable the second option is to just not do the quick little tasks that will 'only take a second' when she gives them to you and just to leave them until you hit a suitable break in your flow to attend to them.
posted by missmagenta at 12:48 PM on April 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

My husband gave me a rule I always use: The only person who gets to say how long something will take is the person doing the work.
Maybe you can find a clever way of paraphrasing this back to her.
Also, speak to her in terms of priorities - what's more important, the "small" task, or the programming task you're currently engaged in?
posted by dbmcd at 12:49 PM on April 16, 2010 [7 favorites]

Ask her to set your schedule up in a Word table.
posted by benzenedream at 12:52 PM on April 16, 2010 [8 favorites]

If your manager has access to your schedule, or you keep meetings and blocks of work in say an outlook calendar you could give her access to see the schedule. Then let her know to email you those tasks, and when you have time you'll put the tasks into your schedule and let her know when you expect them to be finished.

It's key to let her know she's having a massively detrimental affect on your productivity. It seems she doesn't understand why. So, try to explain why it is so difficult to get back into code once she's interrupted you, spell it out in man hours per day/week/month/year, how much her interruptions are actually costing the company. Let her know that you'll have x hours per week where you're able to add one-off tasks to your list of todo's on short notice and that in order to put that into your schedule, you'll need information from her in writing in ADVANCE (not like an hour's notice) - email you the specs, the timeline in which she needs it, and if anyone's waiting on it.

Also, if possible in your place of work? Headphones - big ones, NOT ear buds - even if you'r not playing music or anything on them tend to signal you're busy. You could even tell your manager, look when I have my headphones on? I'm really trying to concentrate on something, please just send an email and when I take a break I'll come talk with you.
posted by kirstk at 12:53 PM on April 16, 2010

Act grumpy. Very, very grumpy. Make whatever you deliver totally awesome, and worth your grump. Then no one will ever bother you. Headphones too. Spreading rumors of your reputation as a BOFH really helps, too.
posted by Geckwoistmeinauto at 1:11 PM on April 16, 2010

Don't act grumpy. It's childish and unprofessional.

Sometimes I need to interrupt staff to move them to work that is higher priority. If something genuinely urgent comes in I usually send the person a chat message and ask them how long it will take to wrap up what they're doing. That gives them the time to finish their current piece work and stop.

Would a similar arrangement with your boss?
posted by 26.2 at 1:24 PM on April 16, 2010

Schedule blocks of time to do your work, and treat it exactly like an appointment or a meeting: let your manager know that you are committed to those blocks of time and will be unavailable for other interruptions. It's no different than a meeting; surely your boss knows that she can't just interrupt a meeting in progress, so you can ask her to treat these blocks of time in the same way.
posted by philosophygeek at 1:25 PM on April 16, 2010

Managers can be lovely, but they need training. If you're in an open-plan cubicle farm, you will need to get a flag/sock-monkey/shrunken head/(for extreme cases) tripwire that you set out to show you're in programming mode. They must come to understand that interruptions are a very bad thing. Sometimes it's hard; the 'can you just ... ?' manager can be be very persistent. In these cases, the shrunken head should really be attached to a sign saying "He Interrupted Me Once Too Often".
posted by scruss at 1:26 PM on April 16, 2010

Do you have a door or do you work in a cube?
posted by Jacqueline at 1:37 PM on April 16, 2010

I do have an office. I think what makes this situation rough is that I did have the conversation; I told her I need Fridays to work on coding. She is disregarding that, interrupting the 1/5 of the week I devote to the "high priority" tasks that I can never work on Mon.-Thurs. due to constant interruptions.
posted by sonic meat machine at 1:42 PM on April 16, 2010

There's plenty of literature on the subject, in paper and book form. I'd say that every interruption costs you at least ten minutes of productivity beyond the work associated with a specific task. You can point your manager at this stuff and at the very least it will keep them out of your hair for some time as they read it. If you want to CYA, BCC their boss about it, or whoever you need to be in the loop to appeal performance reviews.

Beyond that, you've done your job. You've made it clear to your boss that interruptions cost and given evidence. It is your supervisor's job to make judgment calls about what priority specific parts of the team's workplan are. Maybe that 15 minute interruption prevents someone else from getting their job done, or a dozen people's job done. For everyone's sake, you shouldn't be having to second guess supervisors.

But there are things you can do to minimize necessary interruptions. I'm studying Time Management for System Administrators and many people feel that it's advice is relevant to programmers as well (it sounds like you do both?). Here's what you do: generate a prioritized task list. Exchange and CalDAV both support tasks so you've got little excuse not to. At the start of every day, prioritize your tasks High, Medium, and Low and fill up your day with tasks to where Hours Worked = Meetings + Tasks. Make sure your boss can see it. If they don't check your calendar regularly, plan out your day in a large visible whiteboard. Make interruptions an explicit visible part of your daily plan. Maybe pencil them in for after lunch or other natural breaks.
posted by pwnguin at 1:52 PM on April 16, 2010

Send her this. Maybe it will help.

Honestly, I have the same problem, except I don't have even have an office.
posted by novalis_dt at 1:53 PM on April 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

What if you drop by every couple of hours to proactively ask if there is anything you could do for her, now, while you are not in the zone yet? "Hey, I'm about to start a task I will really need to focus on -- anything I can do for you right now?"

More sneakily -- every time she interrupts you, do the job, and then take a very obvious 15 minute break. Not at your desk. If it comes up, just say you're trying to get your focus back. The problem is she can't tell the difference between you at your desk getting work done, and you at your desk not getting work done. You have to emphasize that difference by visibly not being at your desk when she's interrupted your flow.
posted by musofire at 1:58 PM on April 16, 2010

I'm sorry but I'm going to caution against things like having an attitude, being grumpy, taking excessive breaks in response to these interruptions. These are all passive aggressive responses and could reflect very poorly on you during performance reviews. I don't think this situation warrants being sneaky and passive aggressive. I think it warrants setting boundaries and rules.
posted by kirstk at 2:04 PM on April 16, 2010

I've dealt with interruptions (and yeah, I have a door I can close, but seldom do because it screws up the airflow and nobody pays attention anyhow) by shifting my schedule. I'm a programmer who shows up between 6 and 7 am, and is out the door before evening rush-hour.

6-12 is productive time. I get stuff done then. Interruptions during that time get replied to by "I'll have to get back to you. I'm in the middle of something" or "Busy. Later" if I'm really in deep. Both are done without turning away from my monitor and toward the door.

Post-lunch until the end of the day is generally interruptible time. And if I'm on my way out the door and get asked for "just one more thing" I ask if "first thing tomorrow" is soon enough. Usually is.
posted by DaveP at 2:06 PM on April 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Do you really need 8 continuous hours of non-interruptible time? What about breaking it into two 4 hour slots on 2 different days? Or set aside an hour after lunch on Fridays where she can bring you whatever little tasks she needs done before you dive back in?

Ultimately, you need to be clear on what you need (solid blocks of time) and be flexible on how you arrange it (how many blocks for how long), then ensure that both of you understand each others expectations about the agreement clearly. (What constitutes an "interruption"? Is sending an email for you to read later ok? What level of priority does this blocked time have vs your other tasks?)
posted by platinum at 2:36 PM on April 16, 2010

The programmer I work with uses the email method. If he's busy and his door is closed everyone knows to just email him and he'll get to it within a day or so. He's had to train us though, I don't think a single conversation got his point across. People are a bit slow sometimes.
posted by fshgrl at 2:44 PM on April 16, 2010

Can you work from home on Fridays to get the coding done without interruption?
posted by crazycanuck at 3:00 PM on April 16, 2010

Ok, here's the thing. This is your boss, right? So you work for this person, on what this person wants you to work on. Sorry, that's how it is, regardless of what your title is.

What that means is, passive-aggressive push-back, posting hours when your boss may and may not task you (co-workers, sure, but your boss? wtf.) aren't going to result in both being left alone and good performance evals.

You need to do a combination of a couple of the things mentioned above. Have the talk about how you need some long blocks of uninterrupted concentration time, and let your manager help you figure out how to accomplish that. You can't just dictate to your boss that she needs to leave you alone on Fridays - she can't commit to that because she isn't a fortune teller that can promise to not ever need your help on a Friday. It has to be an ongoing conversation and flexible, a "hey I need a few hours on project A, do you think you can pretend I left at lunch this afternoon?"

Also, when you get Line-of-sight tasked with something menial, immediately write it down on the to-do list you keep with you at all times. Then ask if it is urgent, or can it wait until (fair estimate of when you'll be at a good stopping point.) If urgent, do it. Then a little while later, go back and schedule another big block of uninterrupted time. She'll get it eventually.
posted by ctmf at 3:08 PM on April 16, 2010

Is it possible that Friday is the day that these kinds of tasks come up most often? Maybe if your "coding day" were in the middle of the week, it would be easier for her to think of just delaying whatever tasks there are until the next day. On Friday, things have to be delayed until Monday, by which time the information she has for you isn't as fresh. Just an idea.

You might also have more success if you ask for more coding time: two, or even three, uninterrupted days rather than just one. If it's just one day, it seems like you have less to do, and it might seem easier for you to just put off whatever you're working on. If you're needing to spend three days per week coding, I, as your manager, might (unconsciously or not) consider that you seem to have a heavier solitude-mandatory workload and therefore a greater "need" to concentrate.

I realize that this might be unrealistic, or maybe you really don't have that much to do, but I mention it in case you only asked for one day because you thought that's all you could realistically get. If you need three days, ask for three, maybe with one or two to be set during a weekly Monday morning meeting with your boss.

Good luck.
posted by amtho at 3:15 PM on April 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Just explain it to her. You have a good reason, so just tell her. Then ask her to email these requests so that you can do them in a way that they don't interfere with your (existing) work.
posted by callmejay at 3:47 PM on April 16, 2010

If she's not listening - and it sounds like she isn't - then she's not gonna listen. Would it be possible for you to work from home one day a week?

If your coding isn't getting done because your boss keeps interrupting, then make that clear to whoever's upstream of your coding project. Not in an accusatory way, just with notes like "Unable to complete on time because had to spend N hours working on ______ for manager." Be specific; keep good notes.
posted by ErikaB at 7:25 PM on April 16, 2010

My boss gives me something to do and then he interrupts that with something else and quite often goes for a third interrupt too. Quite often in the middle of these stacked requests, the receptionist comes and says "Since you have nothing to do, work on this menial task for me."

I simply do them. They pay me. They don't care that I feel jolted out of my flow at least six times daily. Why should they? Just do what you're told.
posted by zadcat at 9:30 PM on April 16, 2010

At the end of the day, zadcat has a point, but you need to have a healthy and effective relationship with your boss, and so there's really only one answer: start padding your schedule estimates to assume the standard rate of interruption.

Either she will accept your padded estimates, or she will not. If she does, use other coping mechanisms (like turning off your email and IM) to get some focus time, and get so far ahead of your schedule that you don't mind the interruptions. Easy-peasy.

However, if she asks why your estimates are suddenly so long, simply state that you anticipate that's how long the work will take. You don't have to say why; you don't have to say that you're padding to take her interruptions into account. She's not technical, so she cannot prove you wrong. All she can do is suspect you're padding.

If she really starts pushing, just say "I understand, but it's a lot of work, and I have to allow for the other tasks I generally do during the week. Tell you what: let me focus exclusively on my scheduled tasks this week, and maybe I can get ahead of my estimates." If she leaves you alone, great -- get ahead of the estimates, and repeat ad infinitum.

Of course, if she still won't leave you alone, this frees you to say "[her name], do you want me to do this task, or do you want me to get ahead of those estimates?" Hopefully she'll say "oh, yeah, nevermind" and will be trained -- and if she says "I know, but I really need this", then you keep on padding your estimates and start looking for a new job where they respect your time and provide the environment you need to thrive.
posted by davejay at 10:20 PM on April 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

Send her this video.
posted by clearlydemon at 11:33 PM on April 16, 2010

Send the boss a daily or weekly informal (and very simple) time sheet of the number of hours you worked on the big important projects and the number of hours you worked on each miscellaneous task. Show her what a patchworked mess your days are and answer any questions she has with respect. Unfortunately, you may also discover ways that you yourself could manage your time better. I've done this myself in the past and I'm always amazed at the daily figures.
posted by loosemouth at 2:50 AM on April 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

After cooling down and upon reflection, I've realized that the real problem is more organizational than simply with my supervisor. Other people can bring me work, including my supervisor's supervisor, which results in an overload. My programming work is mostly coming from my "grand-boss," as it were, whereas the other parts of my job mostly come from my supervisor. Sigh. Thanks for all the advice, though.
posted by sonic meat machine at 8:59 AM on April 18, 2010

Ah, awesome, the "I'm more senior, do my bidding!" issue. We have that at work, plays HELL with Scrum (Whoo, Agile!).

Maybe you should bring that up with your supervisor. If she's a 'good person' RE work, she'll then escalate to her supervisor about how she needs to know how committed you are and how work should really come via her.

If she's a bad person, make her think about how badly she'll look when her department gets less done because her boss is 'sabotaging' you. Not blatently, but just make it her problem, either way.
posted by Quadlex at 5:55 PM on April 18, 2010

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