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Interruptions at the Office: Good or Bad?

Are you one of those hyper-focused people who can concentrate on any given task and see it through to its completion? I am not. Never have been. I need to have fourteen things going at any given time just to accomplish anything. As I write this, I've got a playlist running in the background with Facebook notifications dinging away and 5 Twitter notifications begging me to check them with their seductive parentheses in another tab.

According to this from Deloitte University Press, I'm not alone:

When was the last time you were able to just sit down at your desk and complete an entire task or project start to finish? No emails or texts, no checking of the Internet, no colleagues crashing through the door to report the latest unrelated challenge (or even gossip)?

In academic circles this is referred to as “focused work,” and according to Dave Coplin’s book, The Rise of the Humans: How to Outsmart the Digital Deluge, humans typically only manage about 11 minutes of actual work at a stretch. And after an interruption from someone else, or taking a break to check email or send a quick text, it can take people from 15 to 23 minutes to get back to where they were before.1 A potentially shocking loss of productivity!

The paper dares you to take 15 entire minutes to read it minus distractions. So, I turned off the music, shooed the cats off my lap, put my phone on silent, and gave it a try.

6 minutes and 15 seconds later, I'm happy to report that was the most boring 6 minutes and 15 seconds of my life. I would have enjoyed the second half of the study much more if I had the option to look away for a moment, but instead I felt constrained to commit to ignoring distractions. I honestly can't tell you what the last half of the paper even said.

Let's go back in — with distractions allowed — and see what I can find:

Any interruption, technology-induced or otherwise, can lead to forgetting. Forgetting requires relearning, and relearning harms productivity. Research shows that the longer an interruption lasts, the more information relating to the task at hand will be forgotten. In addition, the further along the student or worker is with a given task before being interrupted, the greater the opportunity for forgetting during the interruption. These costs accrue more rapidly where tasks require “significant concentration and attention.”

Can lead, yes. Always leads? Doubtful. Taking 2 minutes to Instagram a picture of my really cute cat sitting next to me is not going to cause me to forget everything I read in the paper up until that point. Being forced to focus completely on it for 6 minutes and 15 seconds, however, didn't seem to help me retain what I was reading.

The paper goes on to say that the above interruptions can cause a host of negative outcomes including:

  • Work takes longer, driven by the duration of the distraction and the time spent to refamiliarize oneself with a task when returning to work.
  • The quality of the work suffers from the increased mental fatigue that results from repeatedly picking up and dropping a mental thread.
  • Retention falls as information is improperly “encoded” (that is, stored) in memory. Conditions at the time something is first learned are important when it comes to retention. Laboratory studies have shown that when attention is divided during encoding, individuals remember a piece of information less well—or not at all.
  • Future application of knowledge is more difficult. The brain processes and stores information differently when distracted, making it more difficult to extend or extrapolate newly acquired learning to different contexts. Therefore, even if someone can learn something while distracted, they may not be able to flexibly or effectively use that information.

This may be true of concentration-intensive work — say, brain surgery, since you don't want your surgeon checking Facebook halfway through rewiring your synapses or whatever it is brain surgeons do — but is it really that difficult to jump back into a spreadsheet after 3 minutes of screwing around on Twitter? Really?

My esteemed colleague Colin disagrees with my ADD-influenced opinion on this matter. He linked me to a Lifehacker article on making the most of your momentum but I neglected to read it as it may have been too much of a distraction as I was trying to get this post done.