As we continue to assess the external factors affecting cognitive performance, we now consider the effects of task interruptions. How often are you disturbed when carrying out a task?

Dealing with interruptions is an inevitable part of life. Disturbances to our workflow, thought process or task can have serious impacts on our performance, productivity and concentration. Disturbances can include someone stopping by our desk /office, a phone call, a text or IM, or even the small ding of an email arriving and flashing in the bottom right corner of the screen.

Studies have shown that on average we shift between tasks every 3 minutes, so our concentration levels aren’t very high to begin with! The train of thought is a fragile thing, and the slightest interruption can cause a massive distraction. Our brain has to leave its train of thought to deal with the interruption, once the interruption has been carried out, we have to re-activate our thinking to get back to our train of thought. This re-activation is not easy, and can take several minutes before we return to our train of thought, by which time another interruption could come through.

There is always the risk of losing some vital information when interrupted – it’s difficult to regain all thoughts, and unlikely to recapture previous ideas from the original train of thought. Of course it is easy to complete a task when you haven’t corrected your thoughts, but the quality of work is likely to suffer.

The impact varies depending upon the nature of the task and how long it was being carried out before the interruption, and the length and type of the interruption. If you’ve been concentrating on a task for a long time, and you stop for 10 seconds to reply to an IM, you can probably get back onto your train of thought fairly quickly. But, if the interruption lasts for a few minutes, your train of thought will be lost, and it will take longer to get back into the zone. Especially if the interruption requires a high level of cognitive resources. It’s proven, that if the interruption is prolonged, you can ease your train of thought by continually looking at the original task.

We claim that we can ‘multi-task’, but in fact what happens is none of the tasks are given enough time / focus and therefore effort that they need for successful completion – instead they are completed in a longer time and a slightly lesser quality.

Studies have shown that even an interruption lasting a few seconds can lead to errors in the primary task, so we have to try any means to make sure we get some concentrated time at work, while still being ‘available’.

A few ways to do this are;
Switching your email / voicemail off and allocating regular intervals to check them. You could set available and unavailable time boundaries, or judge whether the interruption is important or not in the first few sentences. If it is not important, you have only lost a few seconds of your concentration so it will be easy to regain your train of thought.

Agree with colleagues can will justify an interruption. Anything else can wait till you become mentally available. It’s also important to understand that if you’re the type to do the easy tasks first, you’re energy levels become low for the harder, more complex tasks that you leave for later.

If you’re a manager / supervisor, it’s important you stay available for your team. But you should allocate ‘unavailable time boundaries’ to get your important work done, leaving enough time for each person under your management.

Don’t jump on the ‘multi-tasking’ bandwagon, give each task enough time and focus to complete it to your best level possible. It’s important to create concentrated work areas within your office, where no phone calls are permitted and is a quiet zone, for employees to concentrate on their work.

Woman at work: Career Intelligence