How Long It Takes to Get Back to Your Work after Being Interrupted. The research is surprising!

Ever find yourself working on something only to have a call come in that you just have to get, someone knocks on your door for a quick question or check your email real quick and only to find it hard to get back into the flow of the thing you’re working on?

Today we’re reviewing 4 research studies on interruptions that look at just how long it takes to get back into the flow and we’ll wrap up with 5 tips you can put to work after finishing this episode so those interruptions don’t kill your productivity. 

A research study titled: 

1. “Attention residue in switching tasks”: Published in the Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems looked at 60 office workers from diverse fields who were  Proofreading text or performing math calculations.

The Participants worked on one of the two tasks for 10 minutes.

They were then interrupted with an email requiring a short response, on average it took 30 seconds to respond.

Then they returned to the original task for another 10 minutes.

Throughout the experiment, researchers tracked task completion time, error rates, and subjective reports of attention and focus.

They found that….

  • It took an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to regain full focus and productivity after the interruption, even for brief email checks.
  • Participants made more errors and took longer to complete the task after the interruption, even when they reported feeling back on track.
  • The researchers believe based on the results that This “attention residue” effect appears to be stronger for more complex tasks.

2. Another study titled “The cost of interrupted work: More speed and stress”: Published in the Proceedings of the ACM SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems looked at 61 office workers  and used eye trackers and software to log their activities.

  • Researchers observed participants’ work patterns for an entire workday, tracking task switching, interruptions, and productivity.
  • They analyzed the time spent on tasks, task duration, and the number of interruptions encountered.
  • Participants also self-reported their stress levels and feelings of control throughout the day.

The researchers found that

  • On average, participants switched tasks every 11 minutes.
  • It took an average of 64 seconds to return to the original task after an interruption.
  • However, regaining full focus and productivity took much longer, leading to decreased efficiency and increased stress.
  • And lately, Multitasking and frequent context switching were associated with higher stress levels and lower overall productivity.

3. Another study  “The Hidden Cost of Interruptions: Quantifying the Impact on Cognitive Work” (2021):

Published in Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction (CSCW).

Examined the impact of interruptions on software developers.

  • The Study found Interruptions significantly increased task completion time by 23% and decreased code quality, meaning more bugs.
  • Interruptions also led to decreased job satisfaction and feelings of lack of control over work.
  • Interestingly, self-interruptions like checking personal email had similar negative effects as external ones.

4. And our last study titled “Understanding the Effects of Interruptions on Attention and Task Performance: A Meta-Analysis” ) Published in Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology.

Conducted a meta-analysis of 65 previous studies on interruptions and focused attention.

The researchers Confirmed the negative impact of interruptions on task performance, error rates, and subjective feelings of focus.

  •  the study also identified factors like individual personality traits and the nature of the interrupted task as influencing the recovery time from distractions.

Additionally Interruptions also led to decreased feelings of focus and attention, hindering overall productivity.

Lastly the study identified moderating factors like personality traits and task complexity influencing the recovery time from interruptions. .

It’s important to note that these studies focused on office/knowledge workers, so the specific recovery time might vary depending on the complexity of the task, individual differences, and the nature of the interruption. However, they provide strong evidence that regaining full focus after interruptions can be quite time-consuming and add up to a late day at work.

5 things you can do:

  1. Turn off your email and anything that gives you an alert.  
  2. If possible, turn off your internet. Yea, that sounds aweful, but so does adding a few hours to your day to get things done because of interruptions. 
  3. Put a do not disturb on your door, even if you work at home. Or make it a rule that when your door is closed there can’t be any interruptions.  
  4. Disable your keyboard shortcuts. Being able to switch screens and windows fast makes it easy to interpret yourself. It’s easy to do it for the Mac and Windows with a quick Google search. 
  5. Create a mini habit that when you’re working on something and are tempted to check your email, phone or some social media site, that’s your cue to  remember listening to this episode and that the research shows it can take as long as 23 minutes to get back on track. That will motivate you to not click away because 23 minutes times a few interruptions a day adds up quick to a lot of lost productivity and late days at work that you can avoid.

Put these tips into practice today  and hit your peak productivity performance on a regular basis.

Your move.

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