On Interruptions

by Site Author

Four score and seven years ago our fathers [DING: Want to have dinner tonight?] brought forth on this continent, a new nation [DING: Your tweet has been retweeted.], conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created [DING: R U OK?] equal. Now we are [DING: Your retweet has been retweeted.] engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that [DING: Why are you not answering?] war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final [DING: Hello?] resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.

Sitting in an office, you probably face many interruptions. To start with, your coworkers can barge in at any time, and your phone might ring at any moment. But computers and cell phones offer even more interruptions. The computer might ring with every new e-mail. Text messages, instant messages, Facebook messages, Twitter DM’s, et cetera all add to the din.

Those interruptions can destroy your ability to think clearly. Making things requires long hours of uninterrupted, deep thought.

Still, there’s surprisingly little evidence on the effect of interruptions. Enter a team of psychologists from George Mason University. The team decided to measure how interruptions affect people’s performance.

To do so, they assigned fifty-four undergraduates to outline and then write an essay. One group faced a series of contrived interruptions. The experimenters asked them to take simple arithmetic quizzes in the middle of their writing. The control group was given 24 interruption-free minutes to write their essays, and the students that faced interruptions were given 27 minutes, with the excess minutes consisting of the suprise quizzes.

The essays were sent to judges who rated essays on a scale of 0 to 6. The experiment was blinded—judges did not know which essays were written by which students. Students who faced no interruptions wrote essays that earned an average grade of 3.71. Students who were forced to handle interruptions while they were writing earned an average grade of 3.06. That is, interruptions lowered grades by 17 percent.

All of this is to say that interruptions, albeit contrived interruptions, reduce the quality of people’s writing. The implication is clear: when you want to get real work done, turn off your phone.