When we want to get work done, we usually try our best to focus and minimize interruptions. But some interruptions, under the right conditions, can actually help productivity without sacrificing quality.
Researchers from The Netherlands and Russia (Zijlstra et al., 1999) ran an experiment where office workers completed a task in a simulated office environment. While the subjects were trying to get the work done, the researchers called them on the phone and distracted them from the primary task to give them a new interrupting task. Sometimes the interrupting task was simple, like looking up a phone number, and sometimes it was more complex, requiring the subject to leave the window with the open document for the primary task and use some real brain power.
The subjects didn’t know that the researchers were purposefully interrupting them or secretly observing them the whole time.
Now, the primary task was nothing more than routine word processing stuff, correcting text errors of moderate complexity, alphabetizing references, and formatting documents. The subjects were secretaries who do this kind of work all the time. When uninterrupted, the task should take a competent secretary around 45 to 50 minutes to complete, although they were all told they could take as much time as they needed and work at their own pace, a detail that turns out to be crucial to performance.
When the experiment was done, the researchers looked at the quality of the work, and it was as good as when subjects did the task without any interruptions at all. But here’s where it gets weird. When they looked at the total time the subjects spent on the primary task, it actually decreased when they were interrupted! Remember also that there were some variations in the kinds of interruptions different subjects received. Time on task decreased even more, to the tune of 4 to 9 minutes, in cases when subjects were interrupted more frequently.
What’s going on?
Zijlstra and his team think the workers developed “strategies enabling them to deal effectively with the interruptions, while actually over-compensating the potential performance decline” (163). In other words, they buckle down and increase their productivity because of the distractions. Again, the secretaries were allowed to work at their own pace and without a time limit. Other research has shown that when time limits are enforced, workers don’t react the same way at all. Maybe it’s a case of keeping the stakes at a moderate level rather than increasing them; we already know that when stakes are too high, people blow it.
Even if the theory is correct that frequent distractions can actually increase productivity, the researchers warn that distractions are still stressors. Another part of the study examined the effect of the interruptions on the workers’ emotions and well-being, and found that they do in fact take a toll.
“Interruptions seem to have a cumulative effect as far as the workers’ state is concerned. When the number of interruptions grows the level of effort rises and the resumption time, i.e. the time needed to re-start the task execution, becomes disproportionally longer. This effect may be explained in terms of decreasing motivation and growing mental fatigue. Extrapolating our findings, which show a performance enhancement along with rising psychological costs, we expect an inverted U-curve with respect to the optimal eVect of interruptions” (183).
The inverted U-shape is particularly interesting because it’s similar to what’s been found in research on the benefits about multitasking. A little bit under the right conditions increase productivity, but too much causes our productivity to plummet.
Zijlstra, F. R., Roe, R. A., Leonora, A. B., & Krediet, I. (1999). Temporal factors in mental work: Effects of interrupted activities. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 72, 163–185.
Photo by Servando Miramontes, CC.