New Study Reveals Short Work Interruptions May Double Errors

If you ever figured a brief interruption at work like hearing your smartphone ring or getting dinged by Outlook about an upcoming meeting has interrupted your concentration, a new study proves that you’re right.

Researchers at Michigan State University looked at 300 participants who performed a sequence-based procedure on a computer. As it turns out, interruptions of three seconds doubled their error rates! 

Although interruptions during a work day are inevitable ranging from text messages to a colleague knocking on your door or cubicle wall, they could wreak havoc on your work itself.

Essentially participants had to do tasks in order. According to the piece published by The Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, they had to identify whether or not a letter was closer to the start of the alphabet or the end by a simple keystroke. Small errors were made without interruptions but when they were interrupted and asked to type two letters, they were twice as likely to make mistakes with the sequence. The interruptions were clocked at 2.8 seconds.

Researchers concluded length of time of the interruption itself wasn’t a distraction but rather the interruptions themselves caused participants to change their attention.

Erik Altmann, lead researcher, explained, “So why did the error rate go up? The answer is that the participants had to shift their attention from one task to another. Even momentary interruptions can seem jarring when they occur during a process that takes considerable thought.”

As for the take away and how we can prevent interruptions on a daily basis? To be realistic they’re going to happen but we can at least try to minimize them. For instance, shut off your cell phone at the office if it’s not work related to focus on one task and one task only.

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