You're rushing to finish a project and your email inbox won't stop filling up with subject lines marked "urgent." Maybe finally gotten into the groove of a problem, and your coworker leans over for a chat.
You're in the middle of one project and your boss hands you something with a higher priority. Perhaps your phone rings right when you're in the middle of an important thought. Whether it's in the office or at home, distractions are annoying, but it turns out they're worse than that.
Many organizations and people prize the ability to multitask. However, a growing amount of research shows there's no such thing. Your brain is simply a single tasker that switches between multiple lines of thought very quickly.
Unfortunately, that switching causes you to lose focus on important things, which leads to mistakes. You might think that it takes some big distraction to add mistakes, but a new study says differently.
Researchers at Michigan State University gave 300 students a complex computer task to perform. However, during some of the tests, a CAPTCHA box would pop up.
You know what CAPTCHA boxes are. They're those things on websites with the squiggly letters you can't read but have to type in right to finish setting up an account or making a purchase. Yes, they annoy me, too.
Anyway, the CAPTCHAs required either a long code to enter or a short code to enter. The long code took the students an average of 4.4 seconds, while the short code took 2.8 seconds.
Researchers found that after the 2.8 second interruption, students made two times more mistakes in their tasks. With the 4.4 second interruption, that went up to three times the mistakes.
In other words, an interruption of a few seconds is enough to throw you off your game and cause you to make mistakes.
[The researchers] chalk this up to three factors. First, when you’re processing an interruption, you’re focusing on info irrelevant to your primary task. Second, being interrupted messes up your “flow” of understanding, so when you turn back to what you were doing, it’s way harder to make the mental leap from one concept to the next.
Third — and this is the biggie — interruptions mess up your “retrieval accuracy.” In other words, your ability to remember things correctly goes way down.
Whatever job you're doing and wherever you're doing it, maintaining a distraction-free environment is the best thing you can do. So, remember that putting your email on hold, silencing your phone and putting on headphones to keep your co-workers away isn't being rude: you're just trying to do a good job.