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Phone Calls and Other Distractions

Harald Welte has written about the distraction of phone calls and how it impacts engineering work [1]. He asks why people feel that they are entitled to interrupt him given the cost to his work.

Some years ago while working as a programmer I was discussing such things with a colleague who worked for the consulting part of the same company. He was really surprised when I told him that a phone call at the wrong time would cost me at least 30 minutes work and possibly an hour or more. His work was also quite technical and demanding but the difference between software development (where you need to think about a lot of program state to consider where the problem might be) and consulting (where you have to deal with a smaller number of configuration file options and sometimes getting debugging information to someone like me) is considerable. So the attitudes towards receiving calls also tends to be quite different.

Computer work requires more concentration, thought, and knowledge of system state than many (most?) career choices. If someone finds that an unexpected phone call costs them no more than a few minutes work then it’s quite reasonable of them to phone other people whenever they feel like it – generally by default people think that everyone else is just like them.

In terms of managing interruptions to my work, I generally encourage people to email me and that works reasonably well. So I don’t have too many problems with distracting phone calls. I used Jabber for a while a few years ago but I didn’t reinstall my Jabber server after it became corrupt because of the distraction. I believe that was due to using Jabber in the wrong way. I should have just started a Jabber client when I wasn’t doing anything important and then killed it when I started doing some serious coding. Having a Jabber message interrupt me when I’m watching a TED talk or reading blogs is no big deal. In fact I could tell everyone who has my phone number that if they see me on Jabber then they can just phone me if they wish while knowing that it won’t distract me from anything serious. I wonder if I could configure a Jabber client to only receive messages when a program such as mplayer is running.

I have configured my laptop and workstation to never alert me for new mail. If I’m not concentrating then I’ll be checking my email frequently and if I am concentrating I don’t want a distraction. I have configured my phone to give one brief vibration when it gets mail and not make any sound, I will only notice that if I’m not concentrating on anything. It’s a standard Android feature to associate ring tones with phone numbers, it’s a pity that the K9 MUA doesn’t allow associating email addresses with notifications. There are some people who’s email could usefully trigger an audible alert. There is an K9 feature request from 2009 to allow notifications only when the IMAP flag “Flagged” is set which would allow the mail server to determine which users are important, but there’s no sign that it will be implemented soon.

I’ve started playing with Google+ recently due to Ingress team interaction being managed through it. Google+ seems quite poor in this regard, it defaults to making a ring tone for lots of different events. Turning that off is easy enough but getting notifications only about things that are important to me seems impossible. I would like to get an audible alert when someone makes a Google+ post with an Ingress code (because they expire quickly and because they only seem to be posted at times when I’m not busy) but not get audible alerts about anything else. I’m sure that most people who use Google+ would like to have different notifications for various types of event. But the Android client has options for whether there should be vibration and/or noise and for which events get the notifications. No options for different notifications for different events and for treating some community posts differently from others.

It seems that the default settings for most programs suit people who never need to spend much time concentrating on a task. It also seems that most programs don’t offer configuration options that suit the needs of people who do concentrate a lot but who also sometimes receive important phone calls and email. It’s ironic that so many applications are designed in the least optimal way for the type of people who develop applications. The Google+ developers have an excuse as doing what I desire would be quite complex. But there are other programs which should deal with such things in a user friendly manner.

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