questions Reading the comments to Patterns for email as work conversation, I came across a comment that hit on something I see all too often (and am certainly guilty of myself):

Iím definitely trying to get people used to the idea that I may only answer e-mails during two periods a day, but that if they have something quick, Iím available via IM. The issue really revolves around that I need some uninterrupted/uninterruptible chunks of time during the day or I feel like I have ADD, bouncing from issue to issue. Also, to a certain extent, I find that the people who work for me will, if Iím available, use asking me something as a substitute for thinking (this Iíve learned after years of being instantly available and then wondering why the people working for me donít seem to be developing critical thinking skills).

It's really, really tempting when you're busy and heave deadlines looming to just ask the guy (or girl) who you know will know the answer. Sometimes it doesn't even enter your thinking because you're focused on accomplishing something else. And it's equally hard to estimate the impact of your interruption on their productivity, concentration, and focus.

The real trick, I think is finding a way to handle this that's polite yet firm. And when you're the sort of person who's more apt to say "yes" than "no" when someone asks for help, it's difficult to help coworkers understand that you'd rather they learn to fish instead of coming to you for one when they're hungry.

Do you run into this very often? If so, how do you handle it?

Posted by jzawodn at March 20, 2008 02:36 PM

Reader Comments
# Dave Hodgkinson said:

I have two sticky notes. One with "Go away please". There's one underneath with "FOESAD" in case they don't get the hint.

on March 20, 2008 03:25 PM
# Greg Whitescarver said:

My team knows I don't like being a substitute for documentation. My likelihood of answering at a given time is inversely related to my workload/level of concentration, and inversely related to the level of ease with which that information can be found elsewhere. When I don't want to answer, I usually direct the person to documentation and/or ask for a much more precise description of the problem at hand, the factors at play, and the troubleshooting that has already taken place. That has had some positive impact in terms of getting everyone in the habit of troubleshooting for a bit and consulting documentation before looking for help, as well as forming questions in a way the presents the problem to me in a more focused and specific way, allowing me to answer much faster.

Some developers are 'chronic' offenders, seeming to fear documentation and/or troubleshooting. That's a big problem, and is something that is guaranteed to come up during reviews (scheduled or impromptu). Self-teaching developers often seem to be that way innately, though I have seen some make the transition. (That transition, for the developer, is a really liberating and satisfying career moment.)

on March 20, 2008 03:44 PM
# Dave Dash said:

I run into it very little at, I do get interrupted a lot, but it's more for discussion not quick answers.

I have run into it in the past. One perhaps passive aggressive approach is to deprioritize certain people/requests on IM. I've found in the past by doing this that if you take a bit more time to answer questions, people will inevitably Google it ( or try their best assumption and see what happens.

Another approach is more socratic. Start asking them questions about their question until you've trainign wheel'd them through thinking.

Also letting people know that you can't be interrupted, and if they can just email you and in that email document their own theories or experiments or research that also helps. It forces people to actually spend time on the problem.


on March 20, 2008 03:55 PM
# Matt said:

Playing Devil's advocate, why should we tout re-use in software development but not in question answering? Why reinvent the wheel each time you have a question? The smart guy asks someone who already knows the answer and then moves on to solving the next problem. I think it's extremist to say that those who take the easy way out and ask someone else a question rather than doing their own thinking (which I am sometimes guilty of as well) are not developing critical thinking skills.

on March 20, 2008 05:27 PM
# jason said:

I'll let them know that I can't talk right now, but I'll get back to them in a little while. That "little while" depends on the request. If they sound urgent, I'll tell them 15 minutes. If not, I'll tell them an hour or two. Often, they'll go away and think about it, come up with at least one solution, and we discuss that solution. Over time, they say, "Thanks for helping me figure this stuff out." When in reality, all I did was push them to figure it out on their own.

on March 20, 2008 07:07 PM
# T said:

This topic is really tough, as usually you work in a team, sharing knowledge and skills. It's tough on the more technically knowledged developers. Which is why, i've made it a rule of mine..

"If i receive help regarding a problem, I promise to document the question and problem in the enterprise wiki."

This avoids the question being asked again to those developers and it being re-explained.

I do totally agree with Jason. I usually let them know i can't talk right now. And get back to them in a little while. If they are chronic "substitute thinkers", i leave them a little longer to think about it themselves, usually giving them a pointer to documentation before i return to my work.

Unfortunately my work does not fully comply with the Programmers bill of rights in statement 6 "Every programmer shall have quiet working conditions". So i am sometimes found to listen with earphones to thinking music - this sends out a clear message, im really concentrating where i work.

on March 20, 2008 08:01 PM
# Percy said:

Headphones are one way of making sure that people don't disturb you unnecessarily.

When people used to ask me questions, I'd either ask them to look up the information (F1 help or Google) or point them to relevant information. If it was a problem that I know was tricky or that I didn't know how to solve myself, I'd help look for a solution.

It also depended on the person--some people tend to come running at the slightest problem, I'd feel less inclined to help them.

I've also offered training sessions, which take a bit more effort, but were worth the time invested (for me). Of course, I could also tell people, You should've attended my training session :-).

It's okay to let people know that you're not available all the time (to help them) and it's okay to say No or Maybe later. It saves you a lot of headaches.

on March 20, 2008 08:55 PM
# said:

i was taught during a critical interactive media design issues class that there is some cognitive science research that shows that participatory questioning (e.g. being prompted with no real direction of knowledge) has this particular effect that people end up acquiring "new" knowledge or problem solving skills; like, when a child asks for help on a mathematical sum, the adult asks, what have you done before? why do you think that doesn't work? what can you do now? without offering "real" help, the child ends up learning and solving the problem. so when i saw this title i became interested in seeing what you had to say. i was abit disappointed to read what i see; maybe its not so much as laziness or convenience that people ask questions, but more of a natural instinct to find guidance. then there's some people who propose that just being in a group in itself the group produces intelligence mechanics which push mental "capabilities" ... all these just sort of points to the greater dynamics of interaction and its effect on people.........

on March 21, 2008 09:25 AM
# Igford said:

Teach a man to fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to feed a fish, and round and round we go.

on March 21, 2008 09:38 AM
# Rob Steele said:

Go away and think about it and ask me again later.

I used to support engineers and scientists in a large research lab. When they called for help I found that if I said I'd be over in fifteen minutes they'd usually call ten minutes later to say never mind, they'd solved the problem.

In ordinary conversation we often say "What?", not understanding what was said, and then three beats later get it and proceed without needing the repetition or explanation we asked for. It's the same here, only different.

on March 21, 2008 11:46 AM
# said:

If an interruption is going to take longer than I want, I usually ask the coworker to write me an issue tracker ticket on the topic. I'm quite happy to get more tickets since they help me prioritize my work (and completing them is rewarding), but this causes a lot of the requests to magically disappear.

on March 21, 2008 11:24 PM
# Robert Konigsberg said:

Being honest tends to do the trick for me: "I'm really sorry, but I just can't help you right now." People tend to respond well to that. If I can point them in another direction, perhaps a mailing list or reference, then I will.

If this happens often enough, people will get it.

Being rude doesn't really help. It makes me feel like shit, and I'm sure it makes the other person feel the same way.

on March 22, 2008 07:37 PM
# Ted said:

I do this all the time without thinking of the cost to the other person. Something to work on.

Batching emails to twice a day helps, but it doesn't stop the interruptions of people walking over to your desk.

Provocative. I submitted this to a competition for best blog post at, as I think this is something that more people need to ponder.


on April 1, 2008 07:40 PM
# Yumio said:

There are two types of people that succeed in life.
1) Answerers - they get their info from dogged research, studying, and just thinking a lot.
2) Askers - they get their info from the Answerers - and are good at befriending them.

I don't think its rude to turn away or ignore email (why is there this assumption that its rude not to answer email? communication should be a mutually accepted/agreed upon event. I often don't answer the phone if I am busy or just don't feel like answering.)

But the Askers will never go away. They have succeeded in life because they ask instead of staying ignorant. And that is not a bad thing.

on April 5, 2008 06:33 AM
# SEO Ranter said:

I used to ask instead of thinking, and let others around me do it. It's OK as a one off, but if you get into the habit, everyone loses their ability to think. What's really bad is the attitude of people when you make them go and think for themselves again.. oh boy..

on April 10, 2008 11:30 AM
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