Pardon the interruption
By Jasminka M. Vukanovic-Criley, MD, FACP, FHM and Stuart Criley, MBA
If you are reading this instead of getting something important done, we apologize for the interruption. Life is full of distractions—some that are self-inflicted, but many more that impose themselves upon us in life and at work.
By interruption, we do not mean simply butting into a conversation, nor do we mean the concept of interrupts in computer science. Rather, we mean those distracting events that pull us off task when we are trying to work.
In 1997, Microsoft attempted to improve the user experience with Microsoft Word with this animated paperclip. It was so phenomenally bad at interrupting our workflow, and providing advice that never adapted to our level of expertise, that it has become the most notorious, most-hated software feature ever implemented. The visceral reactions that Clippy evoked in its users could be explained by insights of user behavior discovered by Clifford Nass and others at Stanford: that humans are social animals who transfer social attributes to their computing devices, and that they will rate these machines (and their software) based on expectations for socially acceptable behavior.
Clippy was scorned because he behaved like a clueless, uncaring individual who interrupted at inappropriate times, and who never learned from his social miscues.
So durable was the hatred for Clippy, that Microsoft Word even became the subject of a Saturday Night Live skit in 2015, over 8 years after Clippy had disappeared entirely as a software feature.
How common are interruptions at work? What about WFH?
You may not realize how pernicious interruptions are while at work. The window of opportunity to remain focused on the task at hand is shockingly brief. Researchers at UC Irvine led by Gloria Mark, found that the typical office worker has little more than 3 minutes to spend on a task before another task is initiated—in other words, before he or she is interrupted.
If the office workplace is so disruptive, how then is working from home (WFH)? At first glance, the working environment much improved! Disruptive events appear to be less frequent, with accompanying gains in productivity. If you are not familiar with Ark Fleet Ship B from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, imagine removing all those annoying co-workers (and perhaps some managers too) and placing them far, far away from the work to be done. For many, this would be paradise.
However, there is one large caveat: these studies were done before the current pandemic involuntarily shifted whole industries out of the office. Prior 2020, selection bias in the kinds of jobs that were studied, and of the people who self-selected for these jobs, may have skewed the samples in these earlier studies toward unusually positive results.
In contrast, pandemic conditions were highly variable: with everyone cooped up in the same household, the interruptions for a professional couple alone in an urban condo were markedly different for a family in a starter home with small children. And the sorts of jobs that were shifted en masse to telework were vast: from banking to healthcare, and most notably, K-12 education. The consequences of these tidal shifts were another example of the Matthew Effect, where those who were well adapted to the new telework paradigm did quite well, while those poorly suited (especially low-wage and low-skill workers) suffered, both in productivity, but also in well-being. Researchers who attempted to model the effects of this new work paradigm on the economy have asserted that working from home is “not the universal panacea promoted by consulting firms and analysts.” Their model suggests that a mix of at-home and at-work would be optimal, with one to two days of work from home being at the sweet spot for wages, building prices, and even the larger economy’s GDP.
Isolation may be helpful in reducing unproductive interruptions, but it comes at a cost. The tradeoff is that there is less opportunity to schmooze for professional improvement, or to work collaboratively. For researchers, who benefit from cross-fertilization of ideas, proximity to other potential collaborators has long been shown to be a key element for success. Tacit recognition of this fact is demonstrated in the campus maps of top research institutes such as Hopkins and MIT, which deliberately design their buildings to foster frequent and varied physical interactions among its people.
Nefarious technological interruptions
If informal gatherings are the bright side of interruptions, information and communication technology has become the dark side. Phone calls, text messages, emails, and social media posts have all been weaponized, by means of notifications, to rob us of our ability to concentrate. On our computers, new emails may chime, and a small window may pop up with a teasing tidbit of a message, inviting us to open it. Notifications on our phones are even more pernicious, with red dots over every icon indicating an update or a new message that we have neglected.
Half a century ago, Vonnegut wrote of a dystopian future where intellectual discourse was defeated by intermittent distractions that would prevent any productive thought from forming. His story was meant to be satire. The joke is unfortunately on us. Because most of the apps we use are free, the companies behind them have no incentive to improve our productivity. Instead, they are driven by user engagement with the product—the more frequent, the better. The more time you spend with these products, the more they can learn about you, and for social media, from Facebook to LinkedIn, the posts that appear in your feed have become tailor-made to be most effective at distraction.
Steps you can take to silence your technology and reduce distracting interruptions
The default installation for productivity software is full of interrupting notifications that you should suppress partially or completely, not only for your own peace of mind, but also for people around you who may have to listen to the chimes in the office, or on your next Zoom call.
Neurological effects of interruptions
Unlike software, our brains are resistant to quick and easy re-configuration steps outlined above. Moreover, our brains do not handle interruptions well. We work more slowly, and make more mistakes, than when doing one task at a time, especially when a secondary task butts in, and will not leave until completed, before we can resume work on the original task. Working memory is at the crux of the problem: our brains have stored mental representations that must be re-prioritized, and we must suppress irrelevant information when shifting tasks. These activities require top-down, conscious effort.
Recovering from an interruption comes with a significant time penalty: Gloria Mark’s group at UC Irvine found that subjects may need more than 23 minutes to refocus and pick up where they left off after an interruption. Others observed refocus times of about 8 minutes when tasks were less complex. In either scenario, the time it takes for us to return to the original task is very likely longer than we anticipate, which leads us to the next effect: how interruptions impinge on our emotions.
We may become irritated, or frustrated, or otherwise unpleasant to those around us. Yet these reactions are normal and healthy expressions of a brain working beyond its design parameters, akin to the computer alarms that bedeviled Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin as they were landing on the Moon. Thanks to the elegant software design of Margaret Hamilton, their computer did not crash, and the mission did not abort, but it did report that there were too many tasks on its plate, and it was abandoning lower priority tasks to complete the ones it could. Likewise, our brains may be protesting when forced to work faster and under stress.
Are we contributing to the problem?
Understanding how the brain behaves during interruptions, when it is challenged to re-orient its working memory, may give us insight when we find ourselves interrupting others: if we are loading a task onto someone else, do they look happy to see us? Or are they irritated? Did we show them common courtesy, and take time to learn what they were presently working on, before we imposed ourselves upon them?
As much as we may have learned about how interruptions have imposed upon our lives, lowered our productivity, and increased our stress, what we can do to reduce our impact on interrupting others, may be the most important contribution we can make to manage this pernicious problem of modern life.
This article was inspired by Williams Criley, who does not appreciate being interrupted, and guards his concentration jealously.
Dr. Jasminka Vukanovic-Criley MD is an award-winning physician, healthcare consultant, entrepreneur, educator, and Associate Clinical Professor of Medicine at UCLA. Dr Criley can be reached on Twitter @criley_md