'ZoneTracker' Plugin? 🤔

It’s well know that interruptions are the plague of the modern developer. Getting “in the zone” is hard but being ripped out is –unfortunately– easy. Of course, if you give a software guy a problem, he’s likely to think of a software solution. Here’s mine…

My work situation is bit complex from an interruption standpoint. As is common these days, we have a fairly open cubical configuration. We’ve also recently rearranged cubes so my team is all close. This has been great for communication but challenging for interruptions. The main difficulty is that I’m lead engineer and team lead. My team has a broad range of experience levels and right now we have a number of projects in early stages. This all adds up to lots of great conversations. I love this stage with it’s planning and collaboration; it’s one of my favorite parts of development. But at this stage in my career I find it very difficult to get enough time to be really productive coding.

Part of the problem is that just blocking out time isn’t sufficient because not all time is equal. I could simply create “office hours” to control when I’m available, but that would be (vastly) overly restrictive. Much of my time is also taken up with project planning (i.e., Jira), code reviews and other important tasks (i.e., web surfing) and when I’m in this mode I really don’t mind interruptions at all. Having a “closed door” (even if it’s virtual) must be done sometimes, but is something I’d like to avoid as much as possible.

My solution to this has been a colored light above my cube indicating my level of willingness to be interrupted: green = open door, yellow = for “important” stuff”, red = go away. This works okay, but it’s currently a manual setting. I have to plan ahead of time to “go red” and then –crucially– remember to turn it back green. Forgetting to do so means training people to ignore the light. What I really want is a more automatic solution. This was CommitStrip’s solution:

CommitStrip comic: War on Interruptions

I mean, I like that concept very much. But I suspect some issues in the implementation phase.

What (I think) I really want is an indicator of how “in the zone” I am. Take for example this study on unplanned interruptions in software development. The measurement of the percentage impact of an interruption may be debatable, but I find the basic concept to be true. Also, I agree it takes time to build into a really productive state. So, the goal should be to get there and stay there for as long as possible and practical (without shirking “team lead” duties, etc.).

So without further ado, here’s my idea. With very little exception, my “real development work” with is done in IntelliJ IDEA. I propose that –in general– the longer I’ve been working there without interruption, the more focused I should be on the task. I’m thinking a plugin could be developed to predict how “in the zone” I am based on my work there. Factors such as continual operation (scrolling, file changes, typing) could be monitored as well as possibly the rate of typing could be factored along with a “build up” time (probably non-linear) to quantify the productivity, similar to the report cited earlier. “Cooldown” time should also be taken into account when progress stops for a duration (again, probably non-linear).

Once a number can generated for productivity or in-the-zone-ness or whatever you want to call it, many interesting things can be done. First, obviously, there are statistics and reports… because who doesn’t love statistics and reports? Second, I would like to associate a color scale (green or blue to red) with that value. It could easily allow executing shell scripts with parameters that would allow my Blink(1) light to display that color. That way my status light is more closely tied to where I’m really at concentration-wise at that moment. Also, scripts could be fired when hitting tiers (say, 80%?) to do things like mute instant messaging notifications and other such distractions since higher productivity is more valuable.

So, dear internet, I ask: what do you think? First, does something like this already exist? Project time is scarce, so I don’t really want to re-build where there’s already a solution. Second, do you think this would be useful? What capabilities would you look for? Are there other metrics that should be considered in determining when someone is “in the zone”?