Noticing the notice

In most digital workplaces, there’s an unwritten understanding that when someone has headphones on, they’re not to be disturbed. Most of the time, digital workers recognise that sometimes you need to get into a productive flow state, and that means being allowed and encouraged to immerse yourself in the task at hand, undisturbed.

Flow is important to web workers, because it’s hard to come by. As digital knowledge wranglers, just like the machines at our fingertips, we’re constantly context-switching, running multiple processes at once, streaming concurrent thoughts and projects and activities in real time, trying to devote sufficient time and attention to each, but usually failing because of unrealistic timescales, lack of data to complete the task in hand or multiple competing priorities.

Context switching is exhausting, especially if you’re doing it all day long. It takes effort to figure out the context when someone comes up to you and starts talking about that meeting or project, and you’re supposed to instantly know
a) who they are
b) what they’re referring to
c) all background knowledge about the context which may enable you to make a useful or insightful contribution.

I often find myself wishing people came with identifying headers, like email. Just a simple whois with a sensible subject line would do wonders for my ability to react reasonably and rapidly to a distraction, rather than staring blankly for a few moments while my brain variously clears to one side the other things I’ve been processing, then cycles through knowledge files to find pertinent entries, all of the while also trying to summon the person’s name and context based only on their appearance (I’m terrible with names) and the words “that thing we were talking about the other day.”

The phrase “continuous partial attention” was invented by Linda Stone in 1998, and it gets more true with every passing year, perfectly describing the constant infograzing state of the digital generation.

So for the most part, web workers need ways to signal to their colleagues that they are trying to crack on with something without distraction. For many, the universal symbol is ‘headphones on’ – even if you’re not listening to anything, it’s a way of visibly signalling to the world that your attention is in another place. Your body may remain in the room, at your desk, but your attention is in the task. This is what Bruce Sterling means when he wrote about “cyberspace” as the place your attention is when you’re focused on something else:

Cyberspace is the “place” where a telephone conversation appears to occur. Not inside your actual phone, the plastic device on your desk. Not inside the other person’s phone, in some other city. The place between the phones.
Bruce Sterling, from the introduction to The Hacker Crackdown [PDF link to whole book]

So we work much of the time in cyberspace, trying to find focus and flow, trying to escape from constant distractions and demands on attention.

Of course, there are exceptional circumstances which mean it’s OK for someone to break into the attention zone. Indeed, we give certain people specific permission to breach the bulkhead. We switch on our “busy” signals on GTalk, but our loved ones know that it’s OK to ignore it. We set up our phones to divert all calls except those from the boss. We instruct our desk phones to deliver a voice message to all calls telling them to email instead. Then we sift through emails when time and attention allow.

We generally prefer forms of contact which can be skimmed, triaged and prioritised. We want to be in control of our time, in a world which makes it increasingly difficult to be so. We tend not to like interruptive, demanding contact like phone or face-to-face disruption, in which someone else takes control of the when, where and how much time the query will take – as well as what else we’ll be able to do during the contact.

Face to face interruptions can’t be compartmentalised, multi-tasked or pomadoroed: it seems rude, when in fact the imposition is on the part of the disturber, not the disturbee. But it’s hard to tell someone to IM instead when they’re looming over your desk. As a result, we digivores get a reputation for being anti-social; for preferring email to facetime; for conducting hour-long sporadic conversations via instant message rather than spending ten minutes on the phone.

So in a distracting and demanding world, we crave the perfect, all-too-fleeting feeling of flow, when dedicated attention combines with lack of distraction to form a productive, devoted, happy state. Nothing beats it: fingers flying, synapses firing: words (or code, or ideas, or photoshop actions, or whatever you do) spilling productively, consistently and cogently onto the screen almost as fast as you can process them.

That’s why dedicated attention time is important, and why geeks (technical, creative and otherwise) resent distraction. We’re not just grumpy sods: we need mental space to focus. Music through headphones helps. Switching off the IM and email clients helps. Making yourself unavailable to the world despite your continued presence in the office helps too, but can prove more problematic.

A year or so ago, in the face of a writing project which demanded lots of head-down time immersed in passages and focused on the screen, I made a little makeshift notice to put beside my desk. It said “Trying to concentrate, please don’t disturb”. I saw it as the physical equivalent of the notice on my GTalk status (“Trying to concentrate: email me instead”) or the voice message I’d set (“Hello, you can leave me a message if you want but I’d really prefer an email to…”).

It was small, and people didn’t notice it. I felt too much of a sourpuss to point it out to them, so it became pointless.

A week later, I came in one morning and discovered a new sign beside my desk, made (I think ) by a sneaky elf in the design team who sit not far from me. In brand-consistent font on a hot pink background, the giant-Toblerone-shaped sign said on each face: “Meg is trying to concentrate”. There could be no mistaking it from any angle. The message was clear.


I’ve tried to enforce a good routine with the sign over the last year. I only use it when I’m actually trying to concentrate on something specific (not multiple things which are distractable). I use it in combination with headphones as a double signal to the world of my unavailability. I take it down when I’m done focussing.

And yet.

Here are the interactions I tend to get, when the sign is up. Each of these is accompanied by hand waving designed to induce me to take off the massive headphones I am wearing when the sign is up:

  1. Are you actually trying to concentrate?
  2. I like your sign.
  3. Hahaha. Meg is trying to concentrate! Very good! Does it work?
  4. I know you’re trying to concentrate [waves dismissively at sign] but I’ve got a question about…
  5. Are you interruptable?
  6. Sorry to interrupt, but I just wanted to talk about…
  7. Ooh, where did you get your sign from? Did you make it?
  8. and perhaps most often:

  9. Can we talk about….[no reference to sign at all]

Why do they do this?

Meg is trying (and failing) to concentrate

I’m at a loss to know what to do next. Current favoured options include:

  • A Lucy-style “The Doctor Is In/Out” sign
  • Ignoring people if they ignore the sign when it’s up
  • Teenage-style eye-rolling and deep sighing when interrupted
  • Getting a bigger sign
  • Amending the existing sign to include the words “Please do not disturb”
  • A deli-counter take a number/now serving machine

If all else fails, I’m going to get a big piece of black cloth, and attach one end using velcro to the outer rim of my monitor, and drape the other end over my head, like a Victorian photographer’s light hood. This idea is, of course, based on the popular toddler belief that if I can’t see them, they can’t see me to interrupt. It also has the added bonus of shutting out all non-digital stimulus, which might help me to focus a bit better.

How do you find focus in a world of competing attention? Any suggestions?

24 thoughts on “Noticing the notice

  1. Try booking yourself a meeting room in your office and hiding in there for a few hours, a physically closed door works wonders. If other people don’t have a sign when they need to knuckle down and focus, then they’ll never appreciate yours.

    Good luck!

  2. I would go with the amendment option – as it is, your sign is stating a fact, and people are clearly not processing from that fact to what effect their actions will have. If you restate/amend so that it is clear what you would like people who see the sign to do, rather than have to work it out for themselves (I mean, I know it’s obvious, but on the other hand obviously it is not), then it is only people who do not see the sign who can interrupt you without actively needing to see that you do not wish to be disturbed and decide to break that.

    1. Oh yes, I absolutely need a computer hood. But wouldn’t it cause people to tap me on the shoulder and tell me they liked my snood?

      I’d also settle for a giant pair of blinkers I could mount to a headband.

  3. I have a better sign for you. It says, ‘Meg is not here because you didn’t let her concentrate in the office. As a result she is now concentrating at home. If you need to reach her, email her. She will not be answering her phone. Have a nice day.’

  4. You are too nice to do this but…

    Ignore them. Pointedly. Blank them completely and if they still insist (after you’ve not moved your eyes from your screen, nor your headphones from yer lugs) keep your headphones ON and point at the sign, then go back to work.

    Do not make eye contact.

    If you want to be a little bit nice have a “come back in 1 hour” sign handy (change timescale to suit).

    I have been known to utter “not now” at such interruptions. Makes the next time they approach a lot easier.

  5. I came up with the idea of – and almost got around to trying – having a very false beard with ear hooks available at my desk, so that any fool could see that, while there was someone sitting in my seat who looked a bit like I would if I had a beard, that person obviously wasn’t me. I rather hoped the phrase, “He’s got a beard on – don’t disturb him” would become common currency in the office. Your experience with the pink toblerone suggests I’m a lot more optimistic than I always think I am…

  6. “In most digital workplaces, there’s an unwritten understanding that when someone has headphones on, they’re not to be disturbed.”

    I never knew that, having worked in offices where people wear headphones, and having worn headphones while working in offices. Offices are social places, and I assume that if people are in the office, they’re ready to talk to other people if necessary.

    I’ve often worn headphones when an office is quiet and boring, or when there’s lots of distracting noise. In neither case do I expect people to avoid bothering me if they need something. I know it might put some people off, but it’s usually the case, happily, that people will wave to attract my attention, and then we can talk. Similarly, if I need to talk to someone and they’re wearing headphones, I’ll try and discretely attract their attention — they might wave a kind of “hang on” or “two minutes” signal, which is fine — but I would be surprised if they were really angry. I’d wonder why they were in the office if they didn’t want to talk to anyone, ever.

    So I can see an explicit sign (or something more) would be completely necessary. Was your previous sign, including the phrase “please don’t disturb”, more effective than your natty pink one? Because, I must admit, seeing it from another person’s point of view, the pink one wouldn’t entirely warn me off from trying to talk to you. It’s nicely nicely discreet and polite and charming but I think a successful sign would need to do two things:

    First, it should be completely explicit. “meg is trying to concentrate” is lovely, but from the point of view of someone approaching you, who needs to ask you something, that vagueness isn’t going to trump their need in their mind (even if to you their need seems trivial). Be more obvious about your desire to really, REALLY not have anyone talk to you right now.

    Second, you should let people know when they *can* disturb you. In a sociable environment it’s going to look pretty rude and grumpy to just say “I don’t want to talk to you.” And someone who wants to ask you something is going to be frustrated if they can’t do so and have no idea when you’ll accept their presence. So something that gives the times when you’re not contactable, or that suggests they email you, or that says to come back at 3pm (or whenever) when you’ll happily chat, would help.

    I’m sure there’ll be some muppets who disturb you no matter what signs, soundproofing, headgear other offices or firearms you employ, but not relying on headphones, and making the sign clearer might help.

    1. Yeah, it might be worth trying well-publicised “office hours”, as done in American academia, where a particular time of the day is explicitly set aside for disturbance / interruption.

      That may mean getting out of flow at certain times, or feel like giving in to the distraction brigade, but it implicitly defines the other hours as non-interruption time, and at least gives people the chance to take note of what an interruptible Meg looks like, so that they have some criteria for judging whether it’s appropriate to interrupt at other times.

  7. I once had a boss who read PeopleWare and came back a week later with a bunch of hats that said “Flow” on the front. We laughed at this, but it did help, mostly because non-geeks didn’t get on to our floor much. Having said that, many of us were left with the feeling that this measure fell short of really respecting our needs. As someone else has commented, there’s an ancient invention that works very well to solve the problem. It’s called a door.

    Open plan offices are the enemy. Ask for a private room, or one that you share with one colleague. A good employer should provide facilities that suit the kind of work being done, right? But of course, a private room equals boss-like status, so it’s probably too good for mere knowledge workers, eh?

    As for headphones: music sucks out brain cycles too. White noise or purple noise can help if you learn to use it.

  8. You need a privacy cape – most of the time it’s just a natty cape with whatever design you fashion on it, but once at your desk you can flip it over your head and monitor, revealing the interior lining, which is bright pink with DO NOT DISTURB on it in white Guardian font.

  9. You probably need to take it on a personal level.

    Maybe make a white bord sign with:
    Thanks to _____________ I failed to make my deadline.

    Place the name there of the person that’s interrupting you.

  10. I think “come back in please” is pretty good, particularly if amended with “Come back in in when I can give you my attention, I can’t at the moment”.

    Then, if you’re wearing headphones and working, you can do a damn good job of ignoring them and they won’t feel personally slighted.

  11. Damn, I used coding brackets. I’ll repeat that with the correct English grammar:

    I think “come back in (an hour) please” is pretty good, particularly if amended with “Come back in (an hour) when I can give you my attention, I can’t at the moment”.

    Then, if you’re wearing headphones and working, you can do a damn good job of ignoring them and they won’t feel personally slighted.

  12. The sign is too passive aggressive and mildly comedic, people ignore passive aggressives signs no matter how nicely made. In fact they almost become a challenge.

    I don’t think its a humanly possible thing to expect to be left alone in a an open plan office, go with the home/cafe/book a room when you need peace. Because you need to be out of that space, which is impossible to do just in your head, you need to physically move.

  13. I think you should add a subhead: please email me and I’ll ge back to you.
    Maybe also put the sign on some kind of stand, so it looks more deliberately set to be “on”?

  14. In chapter 7 of his book ‘the four hour work week’ Tim Ferris has some great ideas. One great suggestion is:

    Wear headphones and pretend to be on the phone. Pretend to interrupt your ‘phone call’ and respond “Hi invader. I’m right in the middle of something. How can I be of help?” if they can’t tell you in 30 seconds, ask them to send you an e-mail.

  15. if you find an answer please tell me, cos i am failing miserably at finding flow these days.

    for now all I can think is to have your sign made up in perspex and have a light inside so it has a very definite “on” state.

  16. I think that you cultivate a sense of ‘openness’ of ‘fcuk-off-ness’ as an employee.

    I find, unless I’m not actually at my desk, people will disturb me no matter what I’m wearing or displaying.

    This doesn’t serve me well, when I’m desperately trying to write a report/brief.

    I used to have a manager who, when I was on the phone, would jump and down in front of me pointing at his office, regardless of how important his request was.

    Maybe a Harry Potter invisibility cloak is the way forward. Anyone know where I can get one of them?

  17. i wish so hard that i could have even ten minutes a day where noone talked to me. i’ve resorted to staying way later than i’m supposed to do get some peace and quiet. my desk is in reception and even though we have a receptionist i’m constantly interrupted by phone calls, people asking questions, people talking to me. even when i’m not involved it interrupts my concentration.

    i wish i didn’t care so much what people thought, or about helping people. i don’t like seeing people struggle when i know the answer to something, so i always jump in. i really should stop but it’s hard.

  18. I absolutely vote for ignoring people while the sign is up. So long as you continue to reward them by breaking your concentration when they interrupt, they’ll keep doing it. Train ’em like dogs. Sign’s up, no talking. PERIOD. Sign’s down, you’ll talk. 🙂

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