Blog | 08.28.2014

How and Why to Zone Out Work Distractions

The term “in the zone” has been abused by many a cricket commentator over the years. Any batsman playing well consistently is deemed to be in the zone. Those who are asked about it either dismiss it or give some other self-deprecating reply.

But one of India’s finest cricketers, Rahul Dravid, has explained it very well in this interview conducted a decade ago. He says that when you’re in the zone, your thinking is not cluttered and you’re batting in the present. During a long innings, Dravid estimates that there are patches of 30 – 40 minutes when you’re in the zone.

I think that being in the zone is not just applicable to cricket or sports. It is just as relevant when we are studying or working or doing any activity which requires focus. That’s the reason why we were told to study in our room without distractions by our parents instead of in front of the TV which we always wanted to do.

But why is it so important to be in the zone? Isn’t multitasking in computing as well as humans considered to be an asset rather than a liability? The main problem of multitasking, both in computing as well as humans is context switching. Context switching is the process of storing and restoring the state or context, so that execution can be resumed from the same point at a later time. The longer it takes to switch the context, bigger the penalty. Similarly, more the number of context switches, bigger the penalty. Due to the current advancement in computing, the time for context switching is so negligible that it makes sense to multitask almost every time. But that’s not the case for humans. Each and every human being has a difficulty in switching back after being interrupted. The amount of difficulty depends on factors like complexity of the task, duration of interruption and obviously the person’s ability.

Joel Spolsky, author of one of the best blogs I’ve read – ‘Joel on Software’ talks about human context switches and how they are harmful in this post written 13 years ago. Specifically with respect to programming, he says that a programmer when coding at full throttle keeps zillions of things in his head like variable names, functions, APIs etc. All this is saved in his short term RAM and any context switch is going to cause him to forget many things and then take much longer to get back in the zone. Having been a software developer for more than 5 years, I can certainly relate to this. I often found that I did some of my best work with maximum efficiency late in the evening or at night. At that time there were no meetings, pings, emails and other distractions.

In this day of technology and social media, it’s indeed a challenge to be in the zone. WhatsApp, FB, Twitter etc. are big distractions. Add to that the constant (and many times unnecessary) emails and chats on the office messenger and the distractions just continue to grow. As always there is also the human element of colleagues asking for help, recreation breaks, managers asking for status on the always present ‘burning issue’ etc.

But there is no point in resigning to fate (or technology). Distractions can be managed and indeed curtailed. Here are some of the ways to do that:-

  • Don’t refresh your Facebook and Twitter timelines every 5 minutes
  • Stop yourself from the urge to ‘Like’ every post on FB or in the myriad WhatsApp groups
  • Don’t check your emails every 2 minutes ( The Send – Receive time interval is configurable)
  • Schedule a ‘No Distraction’ time for yourself to focus on your main tasks. This will send a signal to your colleagues without being blunt.

The internet and smartphone boom has made information and people extremely accessible. But you won’t lose out much if you don’t get real time updates of each and every minute detail happening around the world. If you can manage your distractions and maximise your ‘in the zone’ stints, maybe you can become the Rahul Dravid of your company!