Guest Post by Cyrus Foroughi, George Mason University
The day before I began writing this post, I decided to run a small-scale case study on myself. I wanted to count the number of times I was interrupted during the day. I did not silence my phone nor did I disable any notifications (e.g., email, Facebook) so I could get an accurate estimate of the number of times I was interrupted throughout the day. The study only lasted about two hours because I was getting so distracted I wasn’t getting any work done.
In those two hours, I received five text messages, one phone call, about a dozen messages on Gchat, and six emails, and a fellow graduate student named Eric wandered into my room twice to strike up a conversation. Oh, did I mention this all occurred from 8am to 10am on a Monday, on campus, in July, when the campus is barren and it is one of the least likely times to be interrupted besides the weekend?
I decided to go back to my old strategy of silencing my phone and shutting my door because I am much more productive when I can focus on what I’m doing. I imagine you are too.
Yet despite knowing that interruptions impact our productivity, most of us don’t think too much about how they more specifically affect our work. It may be obvious that being interrupted will increase the time it takes to finish whatever you are working on, but does the quality of that work suffer? The short answer is yes, as we have discovered in a new line of research my colleagues and I are conducting at George Mason University.
To the best of my knowledge, our lab is the first group to measure whether interruptions affect quality of work. The majority of previous interruption-based research used time and error as the primary measures of disruption. These metrics are reasonable and can help put a cost to the effects interruptions have on us. However, in many situations, a loss of time and a few more errors are not the most important factors; the overall quality of the work is.
For example, would it matter if you took an additional 30 minutes to write an essay for class because of a few interruptions? Probably not, unless you missed a specific deadline. But what if those same interruptions meant you wrote a bad essay? A low grade would probably bother you more than the extra time spent writing.
In our study just published in the journal Human Factors, we conducted two experiments to test the hypothesis that interruptions harm quality. In the first experiment, we asked participants to outline and write three different essays. Participants were either interrupted while outlining, while writing, or not at all (as the control). Both the outlining and writing phases were 12 minutes each, and participants served in all three conditions. The essay prompts came from a stock bank from the College Board for use in the SAT.
Not only will interruptions increase the time it takes you to finish writing, but they also could reduce the quality of what you are writing.
How much do interruptions damage quality?
In the interruption conditions, participants were interrupted three separate times for 60 seconds each and asked to complete math problems. Importantly, when participants lost time to interruptions, they got to make up that time after the interruption; this ensured that every participant had the same amount of total time to work on the essay, regardless of condition. Two independent graders who had no other affiliation with the study and were blind to the conditions evaluated all essays using the College Board Essay Scoring Guide.
We found that interruptions in either the outlining or writing phase significantly reduced the quality of the essays — by approximately half a point. Additionally, when interrupted while writing, the word counts of the essays were significantly lower than those from the control group. However, the word count did not change when the interruptions occurred while outlining even though the quality was reduced. This finding suggests that two different causes may be reducing the quality, and we are continuing to explore those causes now.
Extra time doesn’t help
In another experiment, we wanted to determine whether giving participants more time would overcome the quality reduction. We were concerned that participants may have felt rushed and/or ran out of time before fully developing their essays. Therefore, we gave participants up to 20 minutes (as opposed to 12 minutes) to complete their essays. All participants finished before the 20-minute time allotment. The results stayed the same. Once again, interruptions reduced the quality of the essays by approximately half a point.
Individual analysis of the raw data painted a grim picture as well. No participant scored higher when interrupted compared to the no-interruption condition in either experiment. Nearly everyone did worse: In fact, 96% of the participants performed worse and 4% stayed the same. Additionally, we have run this experiment a few more times using slight modifications, and the results have come out the same every time.
We live in an amazing technological age that allows us to connect with others and access information whenever we want almost immediately. Need to call your father who lives across the world right now? No problem. Want to be updated about the latest and greatest sports news as soon as it hits the wire? No problem. Want to message a colleague about lunch later today? No problem. However, our technology comes at a cost of being constantly interrupted while working.
Considering how important writing is and that we write daily, whether it be a report, an essay, or an important email, the latest data from or study should get you thinking about how you work. Not only will interruptions increase the time it takes you to finish writing, but they also could reduce the quality of what you are writing.
For now, the best solution to the interruption problem seems to be that when working on something that is important, you should reduce the amount of external interruptions as much as possible. So, shut your door, silence your phone, and disable notification from email and social media sites like Facebook. It won’t stop you from being interrupted, but it will help.
Cyrus Foroughi is a doctoral student working with Deborah Boehm-Davis in the Applied Performance Research Lab at George Mason University. A version of this post was published on LiveScience.com, courtesy of CNS.
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