The Science Behind Task Interruption and Time Management

Interestingly, Dr. Gloria Mark, associate professor at the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences at the University of California, found that average information workers are interrupted every three minutes – nearly twenty times per hour!

Granted, many of those interruptions are miniscule and take just minutes of our time, but the sheer number of them points to a costly problem. According to the same study referenced earlier, bigger and more important interruptions occur roughly four times per hour.

What’s worse, every one of those interruptions functions as a forced shift in gears. Workflow is jarred and employees have to take time to “get back into the groove.” How much time? On average, 23 minutes. That means, over the course of a day, the four “important” interruptions we face every hour can displace more than an hour’s worth of work!

Research shows that “when you’re interrupted, you don’t immediately go back to the task you were doing before you were interrupted.” In fact, workers tend to take on two additional tasks in between the interruption and returning to whatever it was they were doing before. Corroborating findings from Microsoft’s corporate office show that happens 40% of the time.

The overall time and cost consequences of an interruption depends on the original task’s complexity: the more complex the task, the higher the cost.

tired at work

Where Do These Interruptions Come From?

You might be tempted to blame email, text messages, IMs and even other employees for the lion’s share of these costly interruptions – and you’d be right… but just barely. While email was one of the biggest time killers (accounting for 23% of all distractions, according to Microsoft), Dr. Mark found that 44% of the time, the workers surveyed interrupted themselves. They simply moved on to other tasks, whether the first one was finished or not.

The majority of the non-self-instigated interruptions come from electronic “notifications” (either email, IM or phone messages); the remainder are person-to-person or face-to-face in nature. While in-person interruptions are in the minority, they tend to last longer and leave employees with a larger interruption-related workload (as in, the department chief dropping off a pile of expense reports to be completed).

And, unfortunately, we never procrastinate when it would do us good, as 73% of interruptions are generally handled immediately – whether they need to be or not. Workers seem to get distracted by the interruptions and tend to finish the task created by the interruption, rather than continuing on point with what they were doing in the first place.

“The good news is,” Dr. Mark says, “that most interrupted work was resumed on the same day – 81.9 percent.” But if the good news isn’t really that good – nearly 18% of tasks are pushed back to the next day – how good can the bad news be?

Intangible Costs of Interruptions

If you multiply the 23 minutes per major interruption times 4 interruptions per hour, you’re looking at over an hour of interruptions per hour of work. So how is anything actually getting done? Shouldn’t employees simply be hopping from one interruption to the next?

In a sense they do… and still manage to get things done by the end of the day. How is that possible?

Another study by Dr. Mark shows that, in an effort to make up for distractions, individuals try to worker harder and faster at the expense of personal wellbeing and – to some extent – the quality of their work. Trying to do the same amount of work in less time, while still dealing with distractions, gives rise to:

  • Increased stress levels
  • Increased feelings of frustration
  • Increased effort (or at least perceived effort)

In short, all these distractions make work harder and less enjoyable for the people doing it. This leads to cut corners, worker apathy and the use of slap-dash tactics that leave the final product less than perfect.

Balance all of that on top of the financial cost (estimated at $588 billion every year nationwide) and you can see we, as a workforce have a serious problem with interruptions.

What Can You Do to Cut the Cost of Interruptions?

Simply avoiding interruptions isn’t going to work – they find you, wherever you are… Of course, closing the door and shutting off the email client will make a major difference, but these actions won’t solve the problem entirely. Remember, 44% of interruptions are created by worker themselves.

Perhaps learning better time management skills is the best way to deal with these distractions. The first step is knowing exactly how you and your employees are spending time. Task tracking (made easy through low-cost applications like Yast) can help you immediately spot your business’s biggest time wasters. Spend a day tracking your time and you might be surprised to find out how much time you waste responding to daily distractions!

Research by CubeSmart found that, generally, 26% of interruptions were classified as “organizational issues.” With that in mind, schedule yourself a little time each morning to put a plan in place. Having your day plotted before it ever really begins can help you to avoid interruptions by honing in on the tasks that are most important.

Finally, prioritize your tasks in order to get your biggest projects done first. This will help you to retain your focus in the face of constant interruptions. Ultimately, knowing what you should be working on and learning to put nonessential tasks off until you’re finished with what you’re doing will save you tons of time in the long run.


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