July 17, 2014 at 5:10 PM ET
That report is due by the end of the day, but as you sit down to write you are hit with a constant barrage of disruptions: a new email pops into your inbox, your cellphone beeps with a text message, your co-worker calls you into a meeting.
The final product probably won't be your best effort. In a new study, researchers find that interruptions lead to poorer quality work.
“I think this is a super study … it is breaking new ground. I don’t know of any other that has looked at quality of work in a task that is directly taken from the real world,” says Erik Altmann, a professor of psychology at Michigan State University, who was not involved in the study.
Previous research has shown that interruptions lead to more errors and cause people to take longer to finish a task, but there was little evidence of how distractions impacted quality of work. Determining quality remains subjective, making it tricky for researchers to evaluate.
For this study, Cyrus Foroughi, a doctoral student at George Mason University, and his colleagues asked subjects to answer a writing prompt from the SAT. They had to outline the answer and then write the essay in three different conditions. In the first case, they wrote uninterrupted. In the second, they were disrupted three times while outlining, and for the final task, they were interrupted three times while writing. During each of the one-minute interruptions, the subjects were asked to solve math problems.
“One minute is more than enough to wipe your short-term memory,” says Foroughi. “Most interruptions in the real world can last from 10 to 15 minutes to 10 to 15 seconds.”
It takes a lot less than a minute to impact short-term memory — Altmann has found that an interruption of 2.7 seconds is enough to double the rates of errors because subjects lose their train of thought. While error rates hovered around 2 percent and only doubled to 4 percent, in certain professions, doubling the errors are costly. No one wants pilots or doctors to double their mistakes.
“Even short interruptions in those contexts can have consequences,” says Altmann.
In Foroughi’s study, the minute interruptions were enough to cause a noticeable dip in quality, which was determined by two independent graders who ranked the essays based on the SAT grading rubric.
“Their work quality does drop in the case of interruptions,” says Foroughi. “It looks like 95 percent of people suffer.”
Foroughi also found that people wrote less. If subjects planned on writing a paragraph with five points and were interrupted, they only included three ideas. After the distractions, people still believed they had finished the task, meaning they thought they wrote all five points, even if they only wrote three.
“People just almost cut out a little bit of what they would have left and don’t fully address every single thought,” Foroughi says.
There’s lots of anecdotal evidence that interruptions have been increasing, Foroughi says. In the late 1990s, distractions interrupted people about six times an hour. About five or six years ago, that number doubled to 12 per hour.
“It’s a little bit like what happens to your computer, when you go from one program to another, you have to boot that up,” says Dr. Gary Small, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, who was not involved in the study. “It involves additional mental work.”
Unfortunately, our brains often crave these distractions.
“Our brains are hardwired to like things that are new," Small says. "The new electronic devices offer us this opportunity for novelty.”
Even though interruptions are increasing, experts agree that people can take steps to reduce distractions. Try turning off smartphones and tablets and hiding them from view.
“We react strongly to cues in the environment,” Altmann says. “The thing to do is make sure your cues aren’t available so you’re aren’t looking at them.”
Also, take productive breaks. There’s a difference between responding to texts or emails when you're in the middle of a task and responding when there is a natural break.
“When you are proactive and you stop, your thought process does not get interrupted,” says Foroughi.