90 Percent

Project management, productivity, change management, and more!

Thinking of disturbing someone today? Think twice…


People are being disturbed on a regular basis; sometimes it’s justified, but usually it’s not. What many do not realize, or worst, ignore, is the cost of disturbing someone and the chain reaction it creates.

Some reasons that they think it’s alright to disturb others can range from lack of prioritizing his tasks, vague definition of an emergency amongst colleagues, incapability of managing clients demands, etc.

Someone disturbed during the execution of a task loses momentum and concentration requiring 5 to 15 minutes (give or take) to get it all back depending of the task/person.

For example, a developer, right in the middle of analyzing an algorithm for a software’s functionality will completely lose his train of thought, and have to redo the thinking from scratch. That will cost him time, may make him forget an idea, and the probability of him making an error rises after being disturbed.

So let’s say this developer loses 15 minutes when disturbed, and is disturbed twice during a day. That adds up to half an hour of lost time per day. Assuming out of the blue he is paid 30$ an hour, that means 15$ per day is wasted for this resource. That means 75$ per week and about 3750$ within a year! Just imagine the wasted money if this spreads across an entire team.

Believe it or not, that’s a detail compared to the chain reaction it creates. The reality is, this developer as a “to do” list to accomplish, his time is limited, and managed by project managers who share this resource’s time. Meaning, the developer couldn’t carry out all his tasks because of disturbance, so the project managers will have to adjust project/resource schedules which means even more time wasted.

Now some will think this is exaggerated for disturbing someone for one minute, well, that is because the impact of “unconnecting” and “reconnecting” to a task is underestimated. I’ve once worked in a chaotic environment where I was disturbed every half hour; at the end of each day, I could barely remember half of my day because the rest was wasted left to right.

In conclusion

Disturbance is destructive to efficiency, make sure people around you know the cost of disturbing others so that it’s being done only when justified.

2 thoughts on “Thinking of disturbing someone today? Think twice…

  1. It’s important to raise awareness about this issue. However, I feel that strictly stating “It costs money to annoy people, so don’t annoy your peers!” would be dissuasive for team collaboration.

    What advice would you give to mitigate these focus losses while still encouraging teamwork and communication? “Quiet hours”, restricting non-urgent requests to emails or intranet messaging, asking for phone calls before direct visits to cubicles/offices all come to my mind, but what has worked for you in your management experience?

    • It is true that you want to avoid blocking communication and teamwork, the article’s objective was mainly to get people to realize the effect of disturbing someone.

      How to adjust/avoid this may vary depending of the company, it’s culture, it’s types of projects, but my main tip is to have more planned meetings to discuss the various questions/issues regarding projects. I know people are reluctant to more meetings as they are generally long and non-productive. I’m not going to go into details on how to have good meetings, but here, you want regular, short, efficient meetings. They could be 5 minutes, even 1 minute. By having regular planned meetings, people will plan their tasks around that, and when they have questions/issues, they will (should!) note them and know they will be able to discuss it shortly at the meeting. Meantime, if it’s not urgent, emails/messages can be used if it’s not too complex, or it could ask to talk when the other is ready, so the other can finish his current task first.

      In a previous team where I worked, people would flag they had questions during the daily scrum. So we knew we needed to go talk to them after. We took a couple of minutes as needed to clear everything up and it was as simple as that.

      Sometimes, urgent issues or questions will rise, and disturbing someone may be justified. For example, a website is down and the client just called; don’t wait hours to tell your team, go right away! It’s important to have a well defined definition of “urgent”, as for some, unfortunately, everything is urgent for them, but it may not be the case for others. I’ve worked in a company where “in an hour” was not urgent since the team was working on tasks that needed to be done days ago. It wasn’t great at all, but it goes to show you that “urgent” is relative.

      As for “Quiet hours”, the idea could work, assuming everyone respects the rule. What’s a little constraining is it must be the same hour for everyone, and it doesn’t mean that everyone will “feel” productive during that hour, everyone is different. I get an energy-low at 3PM, so if the quiet hour would be at that time, it would not do me much good as I would probably be doing simpler mundane tasks anyway. So it’s a good idea, but you have to make sure it fits with the team.

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