October 28, 2008
Interrupts Cut Into Work Productivity

A New York Times article looks at work interrupts as enemies of productivity.

A 2005 study, “No Task Left Behind? Examining the Nature of Fragmented Work,” found that people were interrupted and moved from one project to another about every 11 minutes. And each time, it took about 25 minutes to circle back to that same project.

Interestingly, a study published last April, “The Cost of Interrupted Work: More Speed and Stress,” found that “people actually worked faster in conditions where they were interrupted, but they produced less,” said Gloria Mark, a professor of informatics at the University of California at Irvine and a co-author of both studies. And she also found that people were as likely to self-interrupt as to be interrupted by someone else.

“As observers, we’ll watch, and then after every 12 minutes or so, for no apparent reasons, someone working on a document will turn and call someone or e-mail,” she said. As I read that, I realized how often I was switching between writing this article and checking my e-mail.

Professor Mark said further research needed to be done to know why people work in these patterns, but our increasingly shorter attention spans probably have something to do with it.

What I wonder: Do we interrupt ourselves because it is in our nature to periodically look around and pay attention to other things in our environment? Do modern working conditions create demands upon us that clash with the mind's own instincts? Do we need to somehow suppress our instinctive tendencies in order to maximize our productivity?

Her study found that after only 20 minutes of interrupted performance, people reported significantly higher stress, frustration, workload, effort and pressure.

So then how much of our stress and frustration stems from inflicting ourselves with interrupts of checking mail, checking web sites, sending text messages, and answering cell phone calls? I am amazed at how many times certain co-workers let themselves get interrupted by cell phone calls. I get interrupted enough by people in front of me without the need to get still more interrupts from people in other locations.

Also see my previous posts Brain Limits Ability To Multitask Interruptions, Work Distractions Lower Effective IQ, and Brain Scans Indicate When Best To Multitask.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2008 October 28 11:10 PM  Brain Performance


Comments
Lono said at October 29, 2008 8:52 AM:

Well,

That's a good question - and yes I think it is probably a survival instinct that causes us to constantly be varying our attention.

However, as a species, we need to really think about what the long term goals should be - is it to become more and more productive to benefit the fewer and fewer? - or shall our goal be to make the office environment the most accomidating that it can be for Human quality of life.

Ass someone with ADD I can tell you that I will chose to opt out of a society that seeks to make mindless hyper-specialised production drones of us all - and will choose another way.

The goal should be greater automation - with our personal work load being inversely proportional to our technological innovation.

I think everyone can see that quite the opposite is occuring in most societies around the world.

That is not the future I seek to create - and I will lead others on a differnet path if this mindless cultural manipulation continues to increase.

I hope I am not the only one who objects to such a Scientific Dystopia as we are creating today.

Mthson said at October 30, 2008 8:23 PM:

Lono, a greater push toward automation would be great, but the limit on that trend right now is that most of the population is relatively unskilled and has little professional drive, so it's cheaper to employ them to do what a machine could do 'more easily'.

In the meantime, the free market supports a wide variety of jobs, and generally, the higher you go up the totem pole, the more interesting the jobs are and the more society benefits from your productivity.

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