Getting Real: The alone time zone 14 Jun 2005

47 comments Latest by Joshua Volz

To Get Real, get alone.

37signals is spread out over 4 cities and 8 time zones. From Provo Utah to Copenhagen Denmark, the five of us are 8 hours apart. We embrace this constraint. We’re always looking to embrace constraints. The presence of constraints make you creative. The more constraints you lift, the less creative you become.

What’s the side effect of being 8 time zones apart? Alone time. There are about 4-5 hours during the day that we’re all up and working together. The other times we’re sleeping while David is working. And during the other times we’re working while David is sleeping. This gives us about half of the day together. And half alone.

Guess which part of day we get the most work done? The alone part. This is why many people prefer to work either in the early morning or the late nights — they’re not being bothered. And when you have a long stretch when you aren’t being bothered you can get in the zone. The zone is when you are most productive. It’s when you don’t have to mindshift between various tasks. It’s when you aren’t interrupted to answer a question or look up something or send an email or answer an IM. The alone zone is where real progress is made.

Getting in the zone takes time which is why interruption is your enemy. It’s like REM sleep — you don’t just go to REM sleep, you go to sleep first and you make you way towards REM. Any interruptions force you to start over. REM is where the real sleep magic happens. The alone time zone is where the real productivity happens.

So, what do you do if you aren’t 8 time zones apart and forced into alone time? You require it. Set up a rule at work: make half of the day alone time. From 10am-2pm, no one can talk to one another (except during lunch). Or make the first half of the day alone. Or the last half. But make sure to make the alone time zone contiguous — interruptions kill productivity.

A good formula may be 2 hours in the morning where you can communicate, then the next 4 hours alone, and then the last 2 where you can communicate again. No communication means no IMs, phone calls, no meetings. Emails can work as long as they aren’t expected to be answered during the alone time.

Don’t overdose on communication. Shut up sometimes. Try it. I bet a lot more work gets done.

47 comments so far (Jump to latest)

Ben Whitehouse 14 Jun 05

At our firm the senior partner has a shifted weekend taking friday off and coming in on Sunday to avoid phone calls and get a “full day” of non-interrupted working in… just don’t tell our clients!

dwlt 14 Jun 05

Definitely agree with those sentiments. I always get more done if I’m working ‘out of hours’. It sure would be useful if the various communication tools had proper silent modes though — not just a status of “Busy”, but actually don’t notify me. If I switch my IM status to “Busy”, then the client should store up all the messages until I’m ready to look at them, and auto respond with something like “I’ll get back to you at 4pm”.

I just switch my cellphone off, of course :-)

Joshua Porter 14 Jun 05

Great post, Jason. There is a history of creativity/constraint discussion surrounding a much-used literary format that has produced some of the most astounding writing in the history of humankind: the sonnet. One of the more constraint-laden genres in literature, but without it we wouldn’t have the wonderful line: Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?.

bofe 14 Jun 05

What do you do if something fails during someone’s “alone time”?

If the developer responsible for part X of an application is in alone time and part X goes down - malfunctions, whatever… what do you do?

JF 14 Jun 05

Of course there are exceptions. Emergencies, for example.

John Nunemaker 14 Jun 05

I always do my best work after 8 or 9PM for this very reason. In fact last night I started some side work at 8PM and finished up at 1:30AM. In college, I wouldn’t even start on a programming project until at least 10PM, not because I was a procrastinator, but because it is just easier to focus. This article reminds me of The Tyranny of Email.

Kyle 14 Jun 05

Sorry, I totally disagree with you here. What about company culture? What about getting to know someone? What about being a normal communicating human being? What about not turning your office into a library?

You can’t just allotocate “alone time” - it’s like throwing people in cubicles. It may work for you guys, but I doubt it’d work in most office spaces.

What I would instead suggest are headphones. Put headphones on if you want to be alone. Simple solution, for a simple problem. When you have headphones on the miscleaneous interruptions don’t happen - but you can still be interrupted if somebody needs you.

bofe 14 Jun 05

Jason,

I understand there are exceptions — but what do you do during the exceptions?

“No communication means no IMs, phone calls, no meetings. Emails can work as long as they arenít expected to be answered during the alone time.”

If you’re turning off phones, IM clients, and not checking e-mail — how do you get in contact with the developer in an emergency? Bat signal?

Eamon 14 Jun 05

Wow. I totally disagree with this. One thing that drives me crazy about a lot of IT shops is the “tall wall” syndrome: work work work, throw over wall. Then the other side needs to interpret all that work (usually inaccurately), rework it (usually detrimentally), then do /their/ work, then toss it back over the wall. Repeat until dizzy. It’s horribly inefficient, and it’s why I won’t work on a project without assurance that I’ll have access to decision makers and end users. How many times have you heard (or said!), “Ugh. /That’s/ what you wanted? I’ve been churning away at this for a whole day!”

Iteration demands interaction.

JF 14 Jun 05

ďUgh. /Thatís/ what you wanted? Iíve been churning away at this for a whole day!Ē

That’s generally because someone is following a functional spec. When you start from the UI, there’s almost no room for misinterpretation or confusion. It’s clear right from the start.

But hey, do what works for you. Half a day is plenty of time to communicate with one another. If you need more time to communicate then adjust the ratio accordingly, but about half and half works for us most of the time. Some days our ratio shifts, but on balance roughly half and half seems to work best for us.

ichigo 14 Jun 05

“Donít overdose on communication. Shut up sometimes. Try it. I bet a lot more work gets done.”

thats the outcome…and that’s true for me and i am very sure it’s true for many ppl that i know who prefer to work at night.

don’t get it wrong guys. communication is important but as jason said. shut up sometimes for some time. it just works…

Ed Knittel 14 Jun 05

I think some people may be misinterpreting JFs message. Without a doubt you WILL get more done when you are left alone to just get it done. You already do it whether you make that conscious decision to recognize it or not. 37signals is in a somewhat unique position with people in different timezones that they are forced to recognize it everyday. They see the alone time actually happen because half the team isn’t available for half of the day. They aren’t mandating that 4 hours be spent alone - it’s not a strict rule. But it’s a productive result of being in physically different locations.

I agree with JF (which I don’t always do I’ll admit). I think it’s equally important to note that one cannot have 8 hours of alone time a day. It’s been my experience that those extra 4 hours get wasted away and are not as productive as the first 4 hours. My mind will start to wander and I’ll find it harder to concentrate. It’s amazingw hat one can accomplish with a solid 20 hours of alone time a week.

Trevor Squires 14 Jun 05

I’m not trying to be critical here but this sounds a bit like “it’s not a bug, it’s a feature”.

Okay, being spread across 8 zones has enforced a balance between group/solo work. Balance is good so you’re taking advantage of the situation - it’s a feature.

But what I’d really like to hear about is the creative solutions you’ve come up with to work around *problems* caused by being spread over 8 hours. Or being physically disconnected from your team.

JohnO 14 Jun 05

I agree.. I think their post is being misunderstood. They are saying when things need to get done (not decisions need to get made, not specs to get written), but when the rubber needs to hit the road, you need to be in the zone. I agree. I can’t get in the zone for the entire first half of my day (unless I get it right when I walk in [I’m usually too asleep, however]).

Reminds me of: http://joelonsoftware.com/articles/fog0000000068.html

Lester Wilson 14 Jun 05

Alone time, that when the c&*P’s hit the fan and i’m left “alone” to clear it up.

Chuck Cheeze 14 Jun 05

Completely agree. Unfortunately I am a victim (like so many) not not being able to deal with the mail icon in my taskbar, or the light blinking on the voice mail…I have to look at it…HAVE TO! I have gotten to the point with alone time where even when my wife calls I am short with her, as if she has ruined everything by calling and just wanting to say hi…my bad. But if I am in the zone and get pulled out if it I get frustrated.

The new worst thing in my company is that people are barging. As in, I am in a meeting with someone, or even a quick one on one about something, and people walk intot he office and start talking, even about mundane things, without regard for the fact that a meeting (however important or not) was already going on.

Mark 14 Jun 05

“…Donít overdose on communication…”

Alternatively, don’t overdose on alone time either by setting up rules and required silence periods.

As a designer, I find there are some instances where it is much easier to get into (and actively work in) the zone when collaborating with someone else by discussing the project, playing devil’s advocate, bouncing ideas off the team or even discussing something completely unrelated.

Of course, I don’t see these collaborative efforts as being strictly interruptive in nature, even if they might have started out that way.

Forcing silence and alone time can be equally as destructive - ask any freelancer working at home, alone. Being in an environment of productivity (either by being in an office of like-minded individuals, or knowing others on your virtual team are counting on you to produce a given milestone), I would argue, would be more effective to helping one get in the zone - irregardless of what’s going on, or not going on, around them.

Wade Winningham 14 Jun 05

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve told my girlfriend about being in the zone and she just doesn’t get it. I’m forwarding your explanation to her right now.

beto 14 Jun 05

I can attest to this too. I have noticed that during the odd times we’ve have to come back to the office on a Saturday to meet a deadline everything just seems more conducive to concentrate on your work. No suits, no phone calls creeping in every minute, no friends teasing you on IM, none of that “rat race” feeling, no “last minute” meetings… you get the idea.

If it were by me, I’d rather work in “alone time” as much as possible.

ML 14 Jun 05

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve told my girlfriend about being in the zone and she just doesn’t get it. I’m forwarding your explanation to her right now.

Coming soon: JF’s “Getting Real Guide To Relationships.”

JF 14 Jun 05

Coming soon: JFís ďGetting Real Guide To Relationships.Ē

Oh, gawd, don’t read this one.

p8 14 Jun 05

JF, how do you combine this with frequently posting to SVN and keeping up with comments?

Darrel 14 Jun 05

On top of the work benefits, if everyone worked at their own schedule, we could say good bye to rush hour!

I really dislike the assumption that all humans are pre-programmed to be work productive from specfic hours each day. It’s absurd. I also agree that we all need ‘alone time’ to plow through things. I’m all for a 4-6 hour work day, with the rest of the work getting done as the employee sees fit whenever.

Darrel 14 Jun 05

Of course, I donít see these collaborative efforts as being strictly interruptive in nature, even if they might have started out that way.

Mark, I think you are making a clear distinction between collaboration and interruption. The latter is annoying, and tends to be the norm in traditional office set-ups that I’ve worked in. The former, at least for designing, seems to be an ideal. It’s akin to extreme programming concepts, where a small team working together is more productive than the sum of the individuals.

JF 14 Jun 05

JF, how do you combine this with frequently posting to SVN and keeping up with comments?

Some days this is my job.

indi 14 Jun 05

I agree we should be able to work at our own schedule. A little planning and mutual respect can arrange collaboration sessions and support availability times as needed. The real culprit here was the industrial revolution with mass production and the need for strict schedules that programmed the populace. On the other hand, although I like to fantasize about livng back in a time with no clocks and only building tools as needed … the reality is that I would be spending most of the time trying to figure out where my next meal is coming from. That’s a zone I don’t want to be in. :-)

Hans verschooten 14 Jun 05

Project management is communication and at the same time getting things done requires being able to have time to mute the noise of communication. Which is why a tool like Basecamp comes in very handy to timeshift your communication needs.

This point was for me one of the highlights of the recent Building of Basecamp workshop in Copenhagen. Now I only need to put this theory in practice and start getting in the zone during office hours.

Kevin Marino 14 Jun 05

Great bit. My zone sometimes hits at 1:30 AM after my second wind. Put a little energy drink in this rabbit and I’ll go, go, go.

Changing corporate culture to allow for zone time is difficult but all that may be needed is allowing some offsite work, just reducing the interruptions (background chatter in office, people walking over to you, phone calls) can have a huge impact.

I am sure most people find email and IM much easier to reply to and less distracting. So sure total alone would be great but just applying the principal will work.

may 14 Jun 05

this is why I wake up at 6 am and work before I go into the office. I definitely do my clearest and focused thinking when I’m alone. And I do a completely different type of thinking when I’m around others…which is not unproductive but different. Balance is key and it seems you guys have got that right! :)

Lars Fischer 14 Jun 05

This is really a good post! One of the worst problems for me at the moment (during office hours) is the noise around me produced by some co-workers (printing thousands of pages, walking around every 20 seconds, chatting, phone calls, etc).

I’m the only one in my company doing real development so I guess they just don’t get it.

The best place to work for me would be an absolutely silent office with internet connection (and nobody would know the exact physical location except myself).

James W 14 Jun 05

Definitely agree. I take 2-3 hours off at lunch to go running/swimming/biking/jumping/skipping and then work 2-3 hours later than the others. Not only do I avoid the early afternoon energy low, but I get extra hours of silence to get real work done.

Ben Hirsch 14 Jun 05

Couldn’t agree with you more Jason. I rock the 6am shift and let the IMs pour in after 9. It works, plus its easy to be in the zone first part of the day.

indi 14 Jun 05

My zone is after midnight until about 4:00am. My wife just does not appreciate it nor does she believe in it. According to her, when I’m up that late, I’m “partying”. Ouch.

Wesley Walser 14 Jun 05

This is definetly true, however I must say that I do occasionally slip into the zone during brief stents while around someone. Today for example I got 3 comps done for a logo design while someone was in my office, but every time they talked I responded with “gimme a sec” so perhaps this is simi-alone time.

Nathan 14 Jun 05

Good post. Getting into the zone is difficult, and getting back into the zone after being interrupted is even harder. I have a slight variation on alone time from my last job, and that’s team alone time.

I found that almost all of the interruptions that actually took me out of the zone came from someone/thing from outside of our team. The 4 programmers on our team sat within 10 feet of each other, and we almost never bothered each other. We were either all in the zone at the same time, or we knew how to recognize when someone else was in the zone, and we would respect that. So, I think just isolating the team from interruptions from the outside can have a wonderful effect on productivity. This way, your colleagues are there if you need them or if there is a crisis, but you can still maintain your zone pretty easily. Maybe this is one reason pair programming works so well. No one wants to bother two people who are working together, but they’ll interrupt away if you’re on your own.

Brenda 15 Jun 05

Thatís generally because someone is following a functional spec. When you start from the UI, thereís almost no room for misinterpretation or confusion. Itís clear right from the start.

Uh oh, here we go again. I’m just going to ignore that little bit of functional spec-bashing for now.

I think I’m going to create a macro on my computer that says this, and just post it every other day or so when Jason has an epiphany:

A five-person shop has an entirely different culture and different process needs than larger, more distributed organizations. What you do works for you — huzzah. But throwing your successful methods out there against the rest of the world and expecting them to stick? Kind of naive.

In regard to the idea of needing “alone time” to get work done?

Um… duh.

8500 15 Jun 05

Big Organization = More People Involved in Project = More Documentation = Slower Process = Rigid Development = Less Innovation

Of course that is a generalization. I’ve worked at both small agile shops and large ass companies and the above reflects my experience fairly well.

The trick is how to bring the positive qualities of the small shop into the hulking corp which seems to me the problem that 37s is trying to solve.

Keep the ideas flowing.

Gordon 15 Jun 05

I have the option to work at home if required. I do it about once a week or fortnight, now and then as the project schedule dictates (towards the end I’m in the office full time).

Early on a project I’m doing research, learning technologies etc etc, a lot of long “zone” type activities. I do these at home where I can be contacted by phone, email and IM but I’m not right THERE at my desk. Out of sight, out of mind.

Darrel 15 Jun 05

A good book for those interesting in a large company that figured out that 9-5 isn’t the best method:

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0446670553/qid=1118851124/sr=8-2/ref=pd_csp_2/102-7092529-2974530?v=glance&s=books&n=507846

Dan August 16 Jun 05

I believe monks (catholic and buddhist) are practising what JF preaches (sorry about the pun). They have alone time and hours filled with silence and no words. Do they get more work done? Well, the purpose is to make more time for reflection and comtemplation, and probably not so much increased effeciency. But leaving room for thought is a necessary ingredient for becoming absorbed with the ideas you are trying to bring to life - for both monks and designers.

Hero10 16 Jun 05

Jason.
Great insight.

I am a CEO in an israeli company. No doubt my best hours are the early morning before our workers arrive. I try to get some 2 hours alone and then spend the rest of the day with them, answering IM, e-mails and so on…

Like Jason said - you just need to adjust it to yourselves.

Jessica 19 Jun 05

I totally agree with the “alone time zone”. I am a developer now shifting to having to do mainly specs (let’s not discuss the different types ;) ). It’s very difficult for me to get into thinking of all the things to include when I get interrupted so often. The same is true for coding a really complex area, or debugging that PITA-only-happens-to-xyz-on Monday’s-every other week. Then I have everyone interruping to find out when their stuff is getting done. I’m like, leave me alone for 5 minutes and I might get something done!

Not to mention, I’m in the way back cube (preferred) under an exhaust fan (drowns out everyone else), but I can’t hear people “sneak” up on me. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve jumped out of my skin when someone comes right on down to my cube and interrupts me. THAT takes forever to recover from….after I take my nitro…. I prefer a warning via IM if someone needs to talk to me, that way I can say gimme 5 minutes or you’re outta luck or come on down. This doesn’t work for everyone, so I hung a freaking little bell outside my cube for people to ring so I don’t get so startled when people just start talking right behind me.

I’ve also started to keep an interruption log (which is a PITA, but I feel that away about keeping track of time for billable/non-billable too). So I can see, or prove, how much time is wasted. I saw a mention somewhere that it takes so many minutes to recover from each interruption.

FWIW, I’m in a 13-person company. It doesn’t help that I’m the go-to-person, because everyone knows I’ll most likely have the answer. When will I learn! Just act dumb. ;)

JazzyJeff 23 Jun 05

Traditional (i.e not spread across the globe/timezone) companies with salaries etc cant work like this. What do you do when someone appears at your desk asking where X is or what happened with Y project, just ignore them? I’d love terribly to have alone time but thats because it would benefit me, it would surely hurt most companies.

Kanad 17 Jul 05

Hi,
Nice entry. I agree to it too.
I have expressed my views about the similar topic here:
http://spaces.msn.com/members/cactusblossoms/

Be 03 Jul 06

@JazzyJeff: No, it would not hurt. That’s what the whole idea of “alone time” is about. The fact, that people interrupt you, is NOT just fate. You can change that. You can establish a schedule including some hours dedicated to “alone time”. This might be a schedule for the whole bureau or a personal schedule just for yourself. As long as everyone knows, when this time is (and that he’ll get a punch in his face, if he dares to interrupt you ;) ), it’s alright.
It’s no about ignoring people, it’s about time management and clear arrangements.

Adam 26 Jul 06

Excellent idea, I tell my wife not to bother me with her rubbish when she starts acting up.

Joshua Volz 17 Sep 06

I have often thought this, but never put it into words. I think it might have to do with why corporate programmers (or sometimes consultants) end up working longer hours than most other workers. During the day, we are busy gathering requirements, asking questions, getting clarification on specs, meeting w/ execs, etc. and in the evening after everyone is gone, we actually get something done. I noticed this pattern emerging in a couple of my contracts, and it caused me to put in a great many hours. I think the idea of splitting the time so that you have some time to communicate and ask questions and some time to get something done without interruption is a good one.

@Adam - I have a wife, and I am pretty sure that telling her not to bother you when she is acting up isn’t going to work! (although, try it and let me know). Interestingly, my wife just moved her office into the living room, to get out of my office so that we could “stop distracting each other.” I would expect she would agree with the “alone time to be productive” theory as set forth.

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