Interruptions_errors_web

Workus interruptus

Life these days is a series of interruptions. A decade or two ago, at work or at home, you could decide to do something and settle in to do it with the expectation that maybe a phone call (although you could leave the phone off the hook) or a letter would be the most likely interruption to your flow of thought. These days you can be emailed, texted, tweeted, facebooked… Communication is cheap and easy now, meaning more of it happens and that brings more interruptions. If you work in an office you can add to the possible interruptions the danger of Ewan popping his head in to give you an update on treatment of his toe fungus. Interruptions are a way of life these days but the big question is what effect is that having on you?

To test this, researchers had people perform a series of tasks such as identifying whether a letter was closer to the start or end of the alphabet. When they were interrupted the people were twice as likely to make an error as when they were not interrupted. Even momentary interruptions had this effect. This is probably because regardless of the magnitude of the interruption you have to shift attention and that takes mental energy and focus away from the task at hand.

In short, even brief interruptions, say about an email long, can cause you to make mistakes. So if you really need to get some work done you should just…um…release the pressure by twiddling that lumpy brown bit…oh, sorry, what was I saying? I lost my train of thought, someone just asked me a question. Anyway, the bottom line is, try to avoid being interrupted if you want to avoid making mistakes.

Making errors is not so critical if you are a writer writing a story, but if you are an engineer or a medical professional interruptions could have life threatening consequences. It’s revolutionary, but could workplaces of the future, and even homes, consider a policy of no email and no phone except during certain times? Or is that just crazy talk?

Terry Robson

Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.

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