Reducing interruptions with Flow Time

Mentally Friendly

By Christopher Ellis (Digital product designer)

Interruption [in-tuh-ruhp-shunn]

An interruption is something that takes you away from the task you are trying to complete that is unrelated to that task.

They have many formats. Some of the worst offenders in the modern workplace are:

  1. Instant messages
  2. Emails
  3. Phone calls
  4. And the worst offender “hey do you have a second?”

They not only pull you away from your task, they increase the time it takes to get back to the focus level achieved before the interruption.

How expensive is an interruption, really?

An interruption may seem a small blip in one’s day but when in a focused “flow state” it becomes a thought wrecking distraction.

It takes up to 25 minutes for someone to go from being interrupted back to fully emerged in their work again.

Being interrupted can also have a negative impact on someone’s mood if their focus is in a constant state of flux.

This isn’t to say that you can’t talk or collaborate when working in a team. If you are in a team working to solve a particular problem together all of the interruptions are in-context, therefore not seen as a “interruption”

Whilst sometimes interruptions can be unavoidable, removing a block so someone can complete an important task or the fire alarm goes off; there are a few processes that can be put in place to reduce interruptions throughout the day — one of which is something we’ve coined “Flow Time”.

What is “flow”?

When you hear someone describe a time they were really able to concentrate on the task at hand and really get “into the zone” what they are actually describing is an experience of flow.

This term is usually coupled with people in sport trying to accomplish peak performance. However it isn’t simply limited to physical activity. Anyone can get into a state of flow to complete a task whether it be in the domain of design, development or even something as simple as planning out the errands due to be done over the weekend.

Flow

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, dubbed the “father of flow”, broke down the characteristics of flow as:

  1. Complete concentration on the task
  2. Clarity of goals and reward in mind and immediate feedback
  3. Transformation of time (speeding up/slowing down of time)
  4. The experience is intrinsically rewarding, has an end itself
  5. Effortlessness and ease
  6. There is a balance between challenge and skills
  7. Actions and awareness are merged, losing self-conscious rumination
  8. There is a feeling of control over the task

Basically planning a block of time so you have enough tasks to feel challenged without feeling overwhelmed or bored.

Explanation of flow

How we try to utilise it

Hyper effectiveness isn’t something that can be artificially manufactured but that hasn’t prevented many from trying (and failing). The best one can do is put in processes to reduce interruptions and give people an opportunity to immerse themselves in their work be it illustrating, debugging code, designing an interface or planning a new brief.

To foster the conditions required for flow we have instigated “Flow Time”. Every Tuesday to Thursday between 3pm and 5pm meetings are discouraged and interruptions are limited to those that are needed to remove blocks preventing work due to be completed that day.

Having Flow Time booked in advance is important to ensure everyone in the office is aware that all blocks and dependencies are resolved to be beforehand. This allows us the opportunity to give our undivided attention to our work. It also ensures that we’re able to coordinate times needed to work together.

Flow Time booked now until forever

Processes we put in place

It’s always booked — in everyone’s calendars

Flow Time is agency wide. Everyone is expected to respect each others expectation to have time to focus on their duties, no exceptions.

All agency stand ups

At 9:05 every day we have an all-agency stand up. This is to report our progress on the projects we’re working on, share a temperature check on how we’re feeling about the projects we are working on and also to flag any meetings, resources we need and resolve blocks outside of Flow Time.

Team specific stand ups

With mostly everyone inside a specific project team, we found team specific stand ups ensure that everyone knows the tasks they will be tackling for the day. This helps highlight important work and to give extra incentive to not interrupt each other.

Traffic lights

Even after working at Mentally Friendly for a year it’s sometimes easy to forget and interrupt someone else. As a visual reminder we have a traffic light set up which goes red during Flow Time.

No unplanned meetings

After having the all agency and team stand up, there really is no excuse to have a meeting pop in your calendar at the last minute unless it is under dire circumstances. Stand ups have helped to lead to situations where on-the-fly meetings are required.

Reduced “noise”

Since we’re in an open planned office we try to keep conversations to a minimum during Flow Time. While hushed tones might be used it’s quite natural for others to try and listen in, losing the focus they had on what they were doing.

Chill music

Try to keep Daft Punk and Rage Against the Machine away from the office speakers in this time — Chilled tunes are fine but nothing crazy.

No Slack

Slack can be disruptive as well. We try not to send any messages during Flow Time— with exception to in-context interruptions. Many members of the team close it down to guarantee that it doesn’t become another distraction.

All great but how do you enforce it?

Flow Time only works if the people around it make it work.

Self policing
We encourage people to turn off slack, email and focus on the work, if the building is on fire we will grab you.

Wearing headphones
Even if they are not playing music — having a pair of headphones on is a great deterrent for someone to take you away from a task.

Verbal acknowledgement
If someone does break your flow — make sure they know. We aren’t mean about reminding the offender but we gently remind them that they’re disrupting our concentration.

How its helped me as a product designer

Being able to focus on a task for 3 hours without interruption has reduced my general anxiety on creating amazing work inside a small time frame.

It has given me the opportunity to really explore UX problems and UI execution by following the rabbit hole all the way to their end resulting in solutions I didn’t think I could have come up with otherwise.

How to implement Flow Time at your office

Baby steps are key here. It takes a lot of time, practice and patience to get everyone working together to ensure that Flow Time works.

Flow should be done on a time range according to the business needs so doing a survey with the entire business to know what’s the best time for flow is a good start.

Google forms is a simple way of getting everyone involved — be sure to make it anonymous so people actually tell you how they feel.

Trial it with a short period of time without interruptions such as slack or emails and work your way up from there.

I believe in some format Flow can work for all workplaces — whether you’re a creative agency, startup or a florist — let me know in the comments how you have tried to reduce interruptions in your office :)


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Designing for wellbeing outcomes across products, teams and policy.

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