Work Smarter: Even a 3-Second Distraction Can Screw You Up

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This Week’s Insight: Even the teensiest distractions can seriously throw us off. One recent study found that interruptions as brief as 2.8 seconds were enough to more than double the number of errors study participants made on a given task. 

The Evidence: Researchers asked 300 Michigan State University undergrads to complete a tedious computer exercise in which subjects needed to remember exactly where they were in a precise sequence of tasks. The researchers evilly programmed interruptions to occur after about every sixth step, in the form of a pop-up box that required the volunteers to type in a CAPTCHA-esque code before they could get back to work.

In one experiment, the code was four characters long, and the interruption lasted about 4.4 seconds; in a second experiment, the code and disruption were about half as long, lasting 2.8 seconds on average. They found that after the 4.4-second interruption, people more than tripled the errors they made when they returned to the task, and after the 2.8 distraction, they more than doubled their errors.

Why It Matters: This means that “it’s not just a phone call that counts as an interruption — just the ringing counts … even if all you want to do is find your phone and shut it off,” the study’s lead author, Michigan State University psychologist Erik Altmann, said in an email.

Obviously, I don’t know what your office culture is like (or if you even work in one), but if you can, try dedicating 60- to 90-minute chunks throughout the day to totally distraction-free work. (Studies have suggested that’s about as much time as your brain can bear to produce quality work before needing a break, anyway.) During that time, sign out of instant-messaging programs, turn off email pop-ups, put your cell phone away, and, for heaven’s sake, close down Tweet Deck. And if you need an extra push to make the temporary break from social media, just imagine how many notifications you’ll have when you sign back on!