Where was I? The business cost of interruptions

Frustrated worker25 October 2012

Interruptions are a common phenomenon in the workplace, with office workers frequently distracted by the conversations of their chatty neighbours. Estimates of how often people are interrupted range from every ten to every three minutes, and people commonly continue with another two tasks before they return to the one they had left prior to the interruption. New ESRC-funded research has identified just how costly these distractions can be when it comes to productivity.

The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Kent, used eye tracking technology to investigate how people read text, and how they cope with interruptions. Participants read a 14-line text and were either interrupted at an unpredictable point in time, or were allowed to read the text without an interruption. The researchers found that being interrupted whilst reading caused on average a 17 per cent increase in reading time. This was mostly because participants spent a long time rereading previously read words in order to 'jog their memory'. The reason for this lies in how the brain processes words and meaning.

"When reading, people store the meaning of words and sentences in their long term memory," explains lead researcher Dr Ulrich Weger.

"At the same time, they store retrieval cues for that information in their short term memory. It is a long established principle in psychology that information stored in short term memory is vulnerable and can be lost easily. This is why a person, when interrupted, has in a sense forgotten how to retrieve it, even if the information they have read is still safely stored in their long term memory."

Once they returned to the text, subjects actually briefly read quicker than if they had not been interrupted. The reason for this is unknown, but it may be that the process of re-reading information and scanning preceding text reinforces the pattern of quickly going over text, prompting the reader to move faster across the upcoming lines for a brief while.

It is not just interruptions, however, that disrupt reading. The study also found that background chatter slowed down people’s reading speeds by up to 13 per cent. The implications for office workers are clear, and according to Dr Weger there is no easy answer, as strategies to reduce the impact of interruptions on reading made little difference.

"The best option would obviously be for people to create an environment with fewer sources of potential disruption," says Dr Weger.

"The problem is that we are often attracted to the content of these interruptions, which provide a small moment of fascination during perhaps more monotonous work. It is this inner side of it - being tempted towards the distraction - that we can and need to work on. In my understanding, it is ultimately a question of self-control and practicing and strengthening such self-control."

This is the area of research that Dr Weger is currently focusing on in his new position at the University of Witten/Herdecke in Germany. Through this research he hopes to research ways for individuals to find the motivation and stamina to develop self-control more systematically, and thereby become more resistant to external interference, including interruptions.