What do you think happens to your productivity when your boss butts in to ask you questions, or when a coworker needs a file? Many people assume interruptions slow them down and hurt the quality of their work. But research shows it's just not true.
Little interruptions actually cause people to work faster. More importantly, the quality of their work remains uncompromised.
In two companion studies, workers in a simulated office environment were asked to edit text while they were interrupted at different rates by researchers. The subjects didn't know that the interruptions were a part of the study, so the researchers made the interruptions seem relevant to the task. Much to the researchers' surprise, subjects who were interrupted completed their work faster than a control group, and their finished products were just as good. The fact that the text editing was chosen as the task is significant, because it reflects real-world work that requires concentration to do well.
The researchers believe that when workers are aware of interruptions that could potentially slow them down, they develop strategies to compensate or even overcompensate.
A different group of researchers had a hunch that if interruptions were unrelated to the task at hand, the outcomes might be different. But they were wrong.
In their experiment, subjects had to reply to emails with information that they could look up in a documents that they were provided. Like text editing, answering emails is a representative office task that requires focus. One group faced interruptions that were related to the task at hand, while another group faced completely irrelevant interruptions. A third control group carried out the same assignment without any interruptions. The two groups that were interrupted finished their work faster than the control group, regardless of the nature of the interruptions. The control subjects took on average two minutes longer to complete a roughly 20-minute assignment.
The research team also wondered whether the emails from the interrupted groups might have gotten snippy or sloppy, assuming that people become frustrated and reckless when they're constantly interrupted while trying to work. Nope! Just as with the text-editing study, the quality of the work remained high. Typos, length of email, and politeness were steady across all three groups.
What's happening? Why do interruptions cause people to work faster while maintaining the same quality of work?
Studies about a different kind of interruption—self interruptions—might be key to figuring it out. Researchers largely classify interruptions as either being caused by something outside of ourselves (external interruptions) or something within (self interruptions). When people task-switch, for example, without being prompted by an on-screen notification or other external force, that's a self-interruption.
Sometimes we self-interrupt to take care of things that we remember we need to do. If you're in the thick of working and suddenly remember you never picked up some long-forgotten dry cleaning, you might stop what you're doing to write it down or send a text message to another person who can pick it up for you. Once that urgent matter is off your mind, you can go back to what you were doing, perhaps with one small weight lifted off your shoulders.
But it's also possible, according to some researchers, that the bigger reason we self-interrupt is to self-regulate. In other words, we may be taking short mental breaks from our work because they help us stay on task for longer.
Whether interruptions come from our environment or from our own brains, it seems clear that they do help us stay productive. But external interruptions do have a cost: They seem to increase stress, frustration, effort, and other pressures.
A little extra stress and frustration might not cause a dip in productivity or quality today—to the contrary, they probably will help light a little fire under you to get your job done—but they could take their toll over time. So while interruptions do seem to give us a little immediate productivity boost, we should be aware of their potential harm in the long term.
Jill Duffy is a writer covering technology and productivity. She is the author of Get Organized: How to Clean Up Your Messy Digital Life.