Expert Voices

Focus! Distractions Kill Both Time and Quality

secretary, working through lunch
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Cyrus Foroughi is a doctoral student working with Deborah Boehm-Davis in the Applied Performance Research Lab at George Mason University. This column was provided courtesy of the Cognitive Neuroscience Society. Foroughi contributed this article to Live Science's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

Despite knowing that interruptions hamper productivity, most people don't think too much about how distractions affect their work. It may be obvious that interruptions will increase the time it takes to finish a task, but does the quality of that work suffer, too? 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. 

The day before I began writing this post, I decided to run a small-scale case study on myself 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 interruptions I experienced. The study only lasted about two hours; I got so distracted, I couldn't any work done. [NSFW? Workers Reveal Their Favorite Online Distractions]

In those two hours, I received five text messages, one phone call, about a dozen messages on Gchat and six emails. A fellow graduate student wandered into my room twice to strike up a conversation. Oh, did I mention this all occurred from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. on a Monday, on campus, in July? At this time, the campus is barren, and it is one of the least likely times to be interrupted outside of the weekend. 

After the experiment, 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, as this is borne out in our new research.

To the best of my knowledge, the Applied Performance Research Lab in the Human Factors and Applied Cognition Department at George Mason University is the first group to investigate whether interruptions affect the quality of work. The majority of existing research on interruptions has used time and error as the primary measures of disruption. These metrics are reasonable and can help associate a cost with the effects of interruptions. However, in many situations, a loss of time and a few more errors are less important than the damage to the work's overall quality. 

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. [Study Reveals Why We Get Distracted So Easily ]

How much do interruptions damage quality?

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. The essay prompts came from a stock bank of topics that the College Board uses in the SAT. All participants were students at George Mason University with an average age of 23.6 years and were fluent in English. Participants served in all three conditions: interrupted while writing, interrupted while outlining, and no interruption at all (the control).

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. Such scores range from 0 to 6.

My colleagues and I found that interruptions during either the outlining or writing phase significantly reduced the quality of the essays — by approximately half a point. Additionally, participants who were interrupted in the writing phase produced significantly fewer words than those from the control group. However, the word count did not change when the interruptions occurred during the essay-outlining stage, 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 potential causes now. 

Extra time doesn't help

In another experiment from that same study, we aimed to determine whether giving participants more time would overcome the quality reduction. We were concerned that participants may have felt rushed or ran out of time before fully developing their essays. Therefore, we gave participants up to 20 minutes, as opposed to 12, for their essay writing phase. All participants finished before the 20-minute time allotment. The results did not change; once again, interruptions reduced the quality of the essays by approximately half a point.

Individual analysis of the raw data from both experiments painted a grim picture, as well. No participant scored higher when interrupted compared to the no-interruption condition, in either experiment. Nearly everyone who was interrupted did worse. In fact, 96 percent of the participants performed worse, and 4 percent stayed the same. Additionally, we have run this experiment a few more times since publication using slight modifications — such as more-standardized methods for how participants craft their outlines — and the results have come out the same every time.

Focusing in an unfocused age

In today's amazing technological age, people can connect with others and access information at any time, and almost immediately. Need to call your father who lives across the world right now? No problem. Want to know about the latest and greatest sports news as soon as it hits the wire? No problem. Need to message a colleague about lunch later today? No problem. However, that technology comes with the cost of interruptions while people work.

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Considering how important writing is — and, that most people write daily, whether in a report, an essay or an important email — the latest data from our study should get you thinking about how you work. Not only will interruptions increase the time it takes you to finish writing, but they could also make your writing worse.

For now, the best solution to the interruption problem seems to be tuning out : When working on something important, you should reduce the amount of external interruptions as much as possible. Shut your door, silence your phone, and disable notification from email and social media sites like Facebook. It won't stop every interruption, but it will help.

Follow the Cognitive Neuroscience Society at @CogNeuroNews. Follow all of the Expert Voices issues and debates — and become part of the discussion — on FacebookTwitter and Google+. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on Live Science.

George Mason University