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The Real Cost of Interruption

Several years ago, I devised a system for quickly getting into the “zone” while I wrote. Free from distractions and interruptions, I worked quickly, joyfully, and with surprisingly little effort.

But now freedom from distractions and interruptions seems like a fantasy. My husband and I are both working from home and our kids are doing school from home. Although we all have designated places to work, my family is forever interrupting me, jarring me out of my flow. For example, my husband likes to use the printer that is in my office (because I keep the paper and toner filled). He’ll saunter into my office to pick up whatever he’s printed, and even if I’m clearly trying to focus, he’ll put his face right in front of my computer screen and lean in for a smooch.

I recognize how sweet this is. And I am super grateful to have such a loving and affectionate husband. And I appreciate that I still have work. And I do like seeing him and our kids so much.

And also…Like many women these days, I’m a little on edge, and each interruption unleashes a riptide of irritation. Even when the person interrupting me is a considerate and whispering teenager needing a change of scenery (“the chair in your office is so comfortable!”), or a loving husband who wants to shower me with affection, I feel frustrated and snappish.

Am I overreacting? Perhaps I could try harder to keep my irritation in check, but research gives me some grounds for it. In fact, studies have found that getting interrupted isn’t just a nuisance; it’s costly and problematic. Here are three sometimes hidden costs to interruptions.

For starters, they cost us a lot of time. On average, interruptions take 23 minutes and 15 seconds to recover from–even if the distraction is only a minute!

For example, say I’m uber-focused, but then my hubby comes in for a minute or two to chit-chat about dinner plans. Before I turn my attention back to my work, I might decide to take a quick peek at my email, and while I’m doing that, notice that I’ve missed a call and three texts. If I answer just a few of these incoming communications, it may well be longer than 23 minutes before I get back to work.

I suppose, if I tried really hard, I could get back on track faster. But that effort takes focus and energy that I could be putting toward my writing or other work.

Second, interruptions lower the quality of our work. A mountain of research has demonstrated  time and again that interruptions increase our error rate. For example, when college students that are concentrating on a task are interrupted for 2.8 seconds, they make twice as many errors as those who are not interrupted. When they are interrupted for 4.4 seconds, their error rate triples.

According to Glenn Wilson at the University of London, just being in a work situation where you can be interrupted by text and email can decrease your IQ by 10 points. For writers like me, the news here is even more depressing: Interruptions measurably lower both the quantity and the quality of writing we can do in even a very short period of time (20 minutes).

Finally, interruptions contribute to stress and overwhelm, making us feel conflicted and time-pressured. As we shift our focus between tasks–as when we steal a glance at our email while we are working on a presentation–it increases our perception that we have too much to do in the time that we have to do it.

According to Gloria Mark, who studies interruption at UC Irvine, when we are diverted from one task to another, we can pick up our work pace to make up for lost time, but this increased speed comes at a cost: People who’ve been interrupted report having a greater workload, more stress and frustration, feeling more time pressure, and exerting more effort.

And guess what? This makes a lot of people feel annoyed, anxious, and irritable, as I do. Behavioral scientist Alan Keen believes the stress and overload that comes from constantly being expected to multitask is causing an “epidemic of rage.” Interruption and task switching raises stress hormones and adrenaline, which tends to make us more aggressive and impulsive.

In other words, interruption drains our energy and dampens our performance. The stress, inefficiency, inaccuracy, and time pressure that interruptions create are the very opposite of being in the sweet spot.

None of us needs the added stress of daily, constant interruptions during these difficult times. But for most parents working from home, near-constant interruption is inevitable. We can work hard to eliminate interruptions (see this post for ideas about how), but in all likelihood, our efforts will often be thwarted.

Simply understanding why we feel so irritated by constant interruption can help. Research shows that identifying and labeling a difficult experience and the emotions that go with it allows us to recover a modicum of control. This “name it to tame it” technique works by decreasing activity in the brain’s fear and emotion centers, like the amygdala, and increasing activity in the frontal lobe, where reasoning occurs.

Labeling what is happening with us in the present — both the fact that we’ve just been interrupted again and the way we are feeling about it — is a form of acceptance. Acceptance is not the same as resignation; it’s not that our efforts to eliminate interruptions will never work, or that things won’t improve. Everything changes. But accepting our present reality does tend to make us more effective in the face of challenge. And fortunately, it can help us feel better.