Mindful DevOps and The Other “C Word”

We talk about culture and collaboration a lot in the DevOps community. Culture is a cornerstone of a successful DevOps transformation, and the right culture is a critical to creating a productive environment for engineers. It’s easy to focus on collaboration and sharing in a world where we’re trying to bring teams together, but recently I’ve been more worried about the other “C Word” — Concentration.

Recently I have taken an interest in the concept of Digital Mindfulness as a way of improving some of the behaviours I have developed with the use of technology. By being more mindful I hope to break some of the bad habits I’ve picked up and ultimately try to improve my concentration and productivity. To help me to live a little more “in the moment” and less “in the screen”.

I first heard about the concept of self interruption last autumn when I saw Dave Coplin (Microsoft’s Chief Envisioning Officer and Inventor of Pretentious Job Titles. His words not mine) give his talk about The Rise of the Humans at Future Decoded. In this talk he described the way in which the digital deluge, information overload and constant notifications can build habits that impact our productivity, such as constantly checking our smart phones or inboxes, even without a prompt from a notification.

“The average user now checks their mobile 150 times a day.”

This struck a chord with me and I now notice myself doing this sometimes. I sit down to concentrate on a piece of work and all of a sudden I become aware that I’m checking Twitter or another app instead, with no recollection of why I switched focus. This self interruption is a subconscious habit that breaks concentration, extracts you from your train of thought and (what’s really annoying here) is that it’s usually unprompted and completely pointless.

Here’s the fascinating thing about self interruption. It increases proportionally to the amount of external interruption you experience. A study by Gloria Mark measured this impact and found that for each external interruption in the previous hour, self-interruption increased by 8% in the following hour. Notifications, emails, phone calls, texts all cause us to break our chain of thought and the more of these you have the more likely you are to self interrupt. Not only that but each time we are interrupted it takes an average of 23 minutes to return to our original task.

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This guy understands the cost of interuptions

It’s reassuring to know it’s not just me, but it’s also pretty scary to think about the productivity issue this creates in businesses today.

FOMO — Fear of Missing Out — is another reason some people constantly self interrupt. Many people can relate to the desire to constantly check their phones or emails, but for some it’s as extreme as an addiction, experiencing feelings of anxiety when disconnected. Thankfully I’m not that bad, but I have definitely had my moments. I used to check my email on my mobile before I went to sleep at night and then again as soon as I woke up. This is an easy habit to slip into if you work with colleagues in different time zones and it can be quite damaging to your health.

“Reading from an iPad before bed not only makes it harder to fall asleep, but also impacts how sleepy and alert you are the next day, according to new research [continue reading]…”

One of the scariest statistics I’ve seen recently is that about 80% of people experience something called Email Apnea. This is the subconscious reaction of holding your breath, just for a moment, as you open your email or another app. 80% of us are slaves to our inbox. What a statistic!

“Psychologist Dr. Fred Meunch studies the impact of technology on the body. He said it is poor posture, combined with the anticipation we experience before opening email that puts us at risk for email apnea [continue reading]…”

All these things lead to a less than ideal relationship with technology in both our personal and professional lives. As the creators of software defined businesses and software defined working environments I feel like we don’t talk about this enough. For some of us the applications that are supposed to make us faster, better and more connected are actually preventing us achieving our “flow” and being the best we can be.

These are all subconscious habits and that makes them very hard to break, but the first important step is to become aware of when it is happening. That’s where mindfulness comes in. By practicing mindfulness, you can become more aware of yourself and the counter-productive habits you may have developed.

If you want to learn more DigitalMindfulness.net is a great place to start. I have also been using the mindfulness app HeadSpace which provides some great introductory exercises.

Although these behaviours are by no means limited to people who work directly with technology, it seems to me there are a few factors in our working environment that could be exacerbating this problem.

  • Our work requires concentration, complex problem solving and clarity of thought
  • Teams often work remotely and across time zones increasing the use of online methods of communication (email, Slack, Hipchat, Twitter etc) bringing with them their constant flow of notifications and information, not to mention the fear of missing out
  • Collaboration is critical, rarely can an individual complete a deliverable without input from colleagues (even if this is simply a peer review). In other words, we can’t simply “unplug”
  • Generally speaking we are early adopters of new technology and methods of communication, increasing the number of channels we use to talk to each other

OH: “If I have a problem with that, which of these 500 slack channels do I go to?” @Lnxchk

The evidence of this problem is clear enough, with most developers possessing a pair of conspicuous “I’m concentrating” headphones to try and cut down on distractions and interruptions while in the office. And, with a skills shortage in our industry it’s even more important to make a conscious effort to ensure the people we work with are happy, healthy and productive.

The DevOps movement is changing the way we work together and promoting great conversations about culture. Let’s use this opportunity to create a more mindful culture, to help each other to succeed and to create an environment where information and communication is managed responsibly. A culture where the other C word — Concentration — is easy to obtain.

For more thoughts on this subject check out Happy.wtf and read more about it here on @MarkRendlesBlog, then watch @TristanHarris talk about Time Well Spent for a different perspective on design goals.

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Originally published at hannahfoxwell.net on October 6, 2015.

Written by

#HumanOps champion, #HugOps evangelist and recovering #DevOps consultant. Product Manager at @ServerDensity and #DevOpsDays London Organiser

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