The Impact of Interruptions

In order to achieve high performance it is important that we are able to work with focus. We have all had the experience of working on a task and starting to gain some momentum. Our brain is fully engaged, we begin to get immersed, and we sense an underlying feeling of excitement as we begin to make progress. And then…

Fred stops by to say “Hi, nice to see you at your desk.” or

Mary says… “Quick question…” or

John says… “I’m just going to sneak past you to leave a quick note for Nancy.”

In this one moment, this point of interruption, we lose our focus, and our progress stops. Our attention is ripped away, our brain abruptly shifts, our momentum is gone, and with it any feeling of satisfaction. No matter how brief the interruption, no matter how quick the “Hello, how’s it going?” the damage is done. In fact, according to Erick Altmann, a professor at Michigan State University in East Lansing, even "Two seconds is long enough to make people lose the thread."

The impact of interruptions cannot be overstated. They kill our momentum. When we start again on our task, we can’t simply pick up where we left off, we have to reorient ourselves, re-immerse, and re-gain our momentum. The length of our recovery time depends on the complexity of our task; ranging anywhere from 8 minutes for simpler tasks to 25 minutes for more complex ones.

Research from UC Irvine shows the following data on office interruptions:

  • 12 mins 40 seconds (Avg time spent on a task before being interrupted)
  • 25 mins 26 secs (Avg time elapsed before returning to work on the same task)
  • 15 mins (Avg time required, after resuming a difficult task, to get back into the same level of intense concentration)
  • 2.8 secs (Length of interruption required to cause subjects to commit twice the number of computer errors)
  • 63 (Pct of tasks that are interrupted in open-plan offices)
  • 49 (Pct of tasks that are interrupted in private offices)

Frequent interruptions can also lead to higher rates of exhaustion, stress-induced ailments, and a doubling of error rates. Think of the impact you will have the next time you are tempted to interrupt a colleague, who is busily working away, with a quick comment. Instead, pause…stop yourself (before any words escape your lips); control your impulse to blurt out a quick question or non-related comment, instead save it for a more opportune time. Self-control isn’t rude; it can actually be one of the most respectful things you do. Trust me! Your colleague will thank you for it.