Interruptions and Distractions: A Deeper Dive

Interruptions and Distractions
 

In a prior post, we discussed several of the negative impacts of Email interruptions and distractions on knowledge workers and how they comprise a significant portion of your work day.

Key findings were that:

  • Workers spend an average of two to four hours per day processing Email, accounting for 25% to 50% of their time.
  • The average time to recover from Email interruptions is approximately 65 seconds.
  • The average Email session lasts for 47 seconds.

The bottom line is that there is a significant, negative impact caused by Email interruptions on your workday.

Although Email is now reported by business workers to be the number one source of interruptions, interruptions and distractions also exist in other areas of your professional and personal life.

Therefore, it is helpful to gain a better understanding of the important topics of interruptions, distractions, and focus.

As a starting point, let's learn a bit more about interruptions and its closely related cousin, the distraction from a cognitive research perspective. This will help us to understand how these impact our ability to focus, work, and how they can contribute to our feelings of Email overload.

What are Interruptions and Distractions?

Interruption

  • An event that diverts an individual's attention away from a primary task or process in order to engage another activity.
  • Uses a different sensory channel than the primary task.
  • Example: Your cell phone ringing while you are driving – which is an audible interruption during a primarily visual activity (driving).
  • An individual has little to no control over an interruption, since it is triggered by something or someone external to the individual's cognitive world.

Distraction

  • A sensory event, similar to an interruption, but one that is detected by the same sensory channel as the primary task.
  • Example: You see an object on the side of the road while driving, since both involve the same, visual channel.
  • Unlike interruptions, individuals typically have some degree of control to ignore distractions.

Typical interruptions and distractions for business users include:

  • Emails
  • Phone calls
  • Text messages / IMs
  • Co-workers
  • Web browsing

Research has found many negative issues that result from interruptions and distractions, including:

  • Loss of memory accuracy, including not only omissions (forgetting), but also errors (distortions) in the original task.
  • Decreased decision accuracy.
  • Increased decision time for the interrupted task.
  • Unable to locate important information.
  • Missing deadlines or incomplete work performed.
  • Lack of clarity and certainty around the decisions made.

What is even more surprising is that most business users typically work on a task for only three minutes before being interrupted. In addition, major interruptions occur every 11 minutes, with an average time to return to an interrupted task of 25 minutes. The net result is a significant fragmentation of your workday with interruptions and distractions as the primary source of the problem.

Externally Generated vs. Self-Imposed (Self-Generated) Interruptions:

Although some interruptions are externally generated, such as co-workers stopping by or your telephone ringing, the truth is that many of these interruptions are actually self-imposed (or self-generated) interruptions – which means that you are actually the one interrupting yourself!

For example, you make a conscious decision to decide to stop working on the presentation you are developing and decide instead "surf the web" for the concert tickets you want to purchase. You decide to look away from the budget spreadsheet and check your e-mail. You decide to stop reading the status report and talk to the people gathering in the break-room down the hall.

But it doesn't need to be this way!

With today's technologies, you have the ability to turn-off the vast majority of external sources of interruptions and distractions.

For example, you have the ability to easily:

  • Put your office phone on 'do not disturb'.
  • Close your office door or work in an isolated location.
  • Turn-off new Email message notifications or just shut down your Email client entirely.
  • Put your cell phone on "silent".
  • Turn off your computer monitor.

Focus, from a cognitive research perspective, can be defined as selectively concentrating on one aspect of the environment while ignoring other things.

The next time you have an important memo to write, report to read, or spreadsheet to analyze, proactively turn-off the potential sources of interruptions and distractions and give yourself the ability to work at the activity with focus and resolve.

Yes, you will need to take breaks, but make sure your breaks don't turn into side ventures that pull you completely off task and instead simply provide a brief break to allow you to reflect on what you have done and reconsider your next steps from a refreshed perspective.

To pull from the famous Pogo comic strip:

 
We have met the enemy, and he is us!
— Pogo Comics

How do you deal with distractions and Interruptions?

What are your biggest challenges?