The effect of interruptions on productivity: the story that occupational psychology reveals

Anthony Haynes

Anthony Haynes writes: It’s widely known that interruptions affect focus and so are apt to damage productivity. If, say, someone comes over to talk to you, the loss of productivity equates not only to the time taken by the conversation but also by the time taken afterwards to get your mind back in the zone.

But which has the greater effect on focus — interruptions from others or self-interruption, for example when you break off from a task to look at Facebook?

A team of researchers from Groningen, led by Ioanna Katidioti, set out to find out. In a controlled experiment involving 28 workers, they compared the effects of the two types of information.

In the study, the workers had to respond to emails from clients, with queries about product pricing — this was the work task — and also maintain a live text chat with a friend — the interrupting task.

Sometimes the participants could choose chose when to switch from responding to emails to picking up the live chat. At other times, the live chat was in effect forced on them: on their computers, the live chat window would be foregrounded.

The conclusion? Perhaps contrary to expectation, the former situation — that is, self-interruption — had a more negative impact on productivity (measured as the average amount of time spent responding to an email).

I guess that might be good news, in that the more harmful type of interruption is the one we each have more control over.


Source: ‘Interrupt me‘ by Ioanna Katidioti and others in the journal, Computers in human behaviour (Vol. 63: October 2016).

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