Excuse me: How interruptions destroy productivity

Published: Thursday, Feb. 14 2013 12:00 p.m. MST

"Now, where was I?" Interruptions double the errors people make , a new study says.

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You get in the zone. Ideas are flying. Work is being done. Then it all ends as a boss or co-worker interrupts you.

The Atlantic Monthly took a look at a recent study by Michigan State University researchers. The researchers had the participants work on complicated computer tasks — then they interrupted them.

"All of the participants made minor errors; no one's perfect," The Atlantic Monthly reported. "But when their attention was shifted from the task at hand for a mere 2.8 seconds, they became twice as likely to mess up the sequence. The error rate tripled when the interruptions averaged 4.4 seconds."

What is worse, the participants didn't seem to realize that the interruptions had thrown them off.

The British Psychological Society took note of the study. The reason the errors rates go up is because the distraction creates a lapse of attention.

"Although there are several reasons as to why this happens, one of the simplest to understand is that sometimes people forget where they left off the task at hand, prior to the interruption," says Professor John Davies, a Fellow of the British Psychological Society. "This can lead to missing out a crucial step (such as leaving something in a wound for example) or alternatively duplicating something they have already done."

So, a person may be working on a sequence, "A-B-C-D-E-F-G," have a brief interruption, and then pick up with "I-J-K-L-M-N-O-P." The gap of the missing "H" in the sequence was caused by the interruption.

The Telegraph points out the possible consequences: "In many cases there would be no consequences but there are jobs, include surgeons and aeroplane mechanics, which require immense concentration where a mistake could prove to be disastrous, the researchers said."

Science Daily quotes Erik Altmann, lead researcher on the study and a Michigan State University associate professor of psychology: "What this means is that our health and safety is, on some level, contingent on whether the people looking after it have been interrupted."

In other professions, however, it may simply mean a forgotten order of fries in a bag of fast food.

EMAIL: mdegroote@deseretnews.com, Twitter: @degroote, Facebook: facebook.com/madegroote

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