The side effects of being social: Noise

There are two paths between my home and office. The shorter one takes the longer. Yes, there is traffic but since I walk to office, traffic doesn’t matter. I didn’t even notice this curious anomaly for a long time as I almost always take the longer route. I avoid the shorter route as it is very noisy and it turns out that it takes longer also for the same reason. I need to push myself to get to the noisy stretch and that slow part makes the shorter path longer in time.

It seems that our work follows a similar pattern. We need peace and quiet to settle into our work, think about the issues that we need to resolve and then get at it. Look at “think work” like coding, designing, writing, understanding customer etc – all takes quiet uninterrupted time. In all these case, the best part comes only after some immersion into the problem/challenge. This immersion takes time but we seldom get it. We have multiple demands on our time and several of these are transactional.

So we work through the night, not because we are stealing hours from sleep (we can’t) but because that is the time with lesser noise and lesser interruption.

I’ve checked this with many people and almost everyone prefers long uninterrupted hours to get “think” work done. Paul Graham has even written an essay about it – Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule. He makes the same point that think work and transactional work require different kinds of schedules. So why do we do our work the way we do it?

The simple reason is that work is social. We need to get out of our homes, clog the roads and get to our offices because more work gets done when we work together. As an individual unit each one of us produces a little less but as a system we produce many times more than a single person. The developer needs to spend time with product manager and product manager needs to spend time in field with sales/customers. Developer needs long blocks of time, product manager needs long hours too but not as much as the developer and sales/customers needs the least time. But without the interaction between them a good product is not possible. So, the developer and product manager have to live with a lot of “noise” in their lives. They try to avoid it but get sucked in anyway and then end days wondering why they did no work. This example is extensible – pick any line of work and you’ll see the same pattern. We have noise in our lives and it is the side effect of being social.

So what is the way out?

I think the answer lies in creating a habit. A habit prepares our mind to get into the work mode and to shift gears. As Twyla Tharp writes in The Creative Habit:

It’s vital to establish some rituals – automatic but decisive patterns of behavior – at the beginning of the creative process, when you are most at the peril of turning back, chickening out, giving up, or going the wrong way. … Turning something into a ritual eliminates the question, Why am I doing this?

Twyla Tharp is a prolific award winning choreographer with a career spanning almost 50 years and therefore well qualified to tell us what gets our creative juices flowing. But, I think the importance of a ritual goes beyond elimination the question of Why am I doing this? It also hastens the immersion process that gets us down in that state of mind where we are at our most productive. What would have taken half an hour can take just a few minutes. It can be as simple as the morning cup of coffee, switching on the computer etc.

It is not easy to form these habits too because transactional stuff can come in between the habit too. Some other habits and approaches help here:

  1. Don’t check email.
  2. Put phone on silent.
  3. Put on music. I’ve found that it’s best to play a familiar song on loop. It drowns out the noise of stuff happening around me and gives a cocoon of the familiar.
  4. Tell people around you to ping you on IM instead of trying to start a conversation. This allows you to get to the interruption at your own pace rather than responding immediately.

So. this is what I’ve been doing doing and it’s been helping. I’m sure there are other approaches and would love to hear about them.

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