I'm taking an hour out from polishing and sanding the final draft of "The Delirium Brief", the eighth Laundry Files novel (which is due to hit my editors' inboxes this Wednesday) to just mention something that bugs me which came up in another context this week: interruptions.
Some people thrive on office chatter, conversations, and meetings. In contrast, while I'm working, I can't stand that stuff. My phone ringing is enough to throw me out of my work flow state); never mind a human being poking their head around the door, or incoming email and instant messages. Scheduled conference calls are even worse. Being thrown out of flow is jarring, actually mentally painful: and once the interruption is dealt with it can take me a quarter of an hour to pick up the pieces of whatever I was working on and get back down to it.
What's going on?
Well, it turns out that this peculiar phenomenon isn't unique to the creative writing process (or to me). I'd experienced it in an earlier career track, and it's common enough to have spawned studies: because programmers also find interruptions really disruptive, as this study published in Game Developer Magazine (Programmer, Interrupted) suggests. Indeed:
Based on an analysis of 10,000 programming sessions recorded from 86 programmers using Eclipse and Visual Studio, and a survey of 414 programmers, we found:
- A programmer takes 10-15 minutes to start editing code after resuming work from an interruption.
- When interrupted during an edit of a method, a programmer resumed work in less than a minute only 10 percent of the time.
- A programmer is likely to get just one uninterrupted two-hour session in a day.
one thing that coding and writing fiction have in common is that both tasks require the participant to hold huge amounts of information in their head, in working memory. In the case of the programmer, they may be tracing a variable or function call through the context of a project distributed across many source files, and simultaneously maintaining awareness of whatever complex APIs the object of their attention is interacting with. In the case of the author, they may be holding a substantial chunk of the plot of a novel (or worse, an entire series) in their head, along with a model of the mental state of the character they're focussing on, and a list of secondary protagonists, while attempting to ensure that the individual sentence they're currently crafting is consistent with the rest of the body of work.
And it turns out that tracking subvocalizations and pupil diameter as a metric for task difficulty (among programmers staring at a monitor while editing source files) suggests that being interrupted in certain work states is worse than a random interruption in general:
- During an edit, especially with concurrent edits in multiple locations
- Navigation and search activities
- Comprehending data flow and control flow in code
- IDE (editor) window is out of focus (translation: programmer is attending to some non-editing programming task)
The first three of these conditions I would describe as having direct equivalents while writing a novel, and they're pretty much what you'd expect: editing or writing prose (the more complex the changes to the manuscript, the more demanding), navigating through a novel, and comprehending the high-level structure and plot of a work of fiction. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: the internal, subjective experience of writing a novel is surprisingly similar to the experience of writing a hefty piece of software ... with the added twist that when you're working on the eighth book in a series, the amount of "code" you've got to keep in your working memory is painful.
It's possible to ramp down from this level of flow in order to interact with someone who wants to talk; but doing so without your flow being disrupted takes time—again, the study of programmers suggested an average of seven minutes from initial signal to reaching a good stopping point. This corresponds to my experience: I can't drop a sentence or paragraph I'm working on and come back to it until I've completed whatever writing or fine-tuning task I was engaged in satisfactorily, and this can take a little while.
But this is merely the superficial issue of interruptions to workflow. As Paul Graham of Y Combinator noted in 2009, makers and managers work to an entirely different schedule: and these are fundamentally incompatible. People in managerial roles expect regular meetings and interactions throughout the day; but makers (such as programmers or writers) expect to block out lengthy periods—half a day at a time—for concentrated, uninterrupted work flow. As Graham notes:
I find one meeting can sometimes affect a whole day. A meeting commonly blows at least half a day, by breaking up a morning or afternoon. But in addition there's sometimes a cascading effect. If I know the afternoon is going to be broken up, I'm slightly less likely to start something ambitious in the morning.
I actively try to avoid email interactions and planned phone calls while I'm up to my elbows in a book, because I find them psychologically destabilizing—not only does the contact itself knock me out of the zone, anticipating the contact disrupts my ability to get into the zone in the first place. Indeed, this is such a problem that I sometimes end up rejecting potential marketing/PR interactions because a fifteen minute scheduled conference call can damage my ability to focus on work for the whole day leading up to it. (And this is why I was not interviewed on BBC Radio 4 last week over my essay about the significance of the discovery of Proxima Centauri A: I'm down to the wire on a deadline with "The Delirium Brief" and I didn't want to lose a productive day's work.)
And if you're trying to get in touch with me while I'm working and I'm not terribly responsive? This is probably why.
PS: Some smart-arse is going to ask, "if you've got such a tight deadline, how come you can write this blog entry?" Short answer: because it's a modular, self-contained task that's orthogonal to the book I'm working on and has a well-defined beginning, middle, and end. In other words, I downed tools in good order before I started, and now I've finished and hit "publish" I am going to pour another mug of tea, take a brief lunch break, and go back to work on the book.