Here’s How to Handle Workplace Interruptions, According to Science

February 09, 2018 by Josh Hrala

If you’ve ever been working hard at a task, trying to get it done by a deadline, you probably know just how infuriating constant interruptions can be.

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Not only do these interruptions make it hard to complete the task at hand, they also can derail your entire day. The good news is that researchers from the University of Washington and the University of Minnesota have discovered a way to get you back on track in only a few minutes.

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The team, led by Sophie Leroy from the University of Washington, found that having a ‘ready-to-resume’ strategy – a plan of action to handle random interruptions – can allow people to completely pivot to the new task and then completely pivot back to the old one, giving them both attention instead of trying to split your attention into two different areas. By splitting your time, you actually perform worse at both tasks, which is obviously no good. 

“It’s like Windows staying open in our brains, and it makes it hard to focus on the intervening work,” Leroy said.

“As I am still thinking about Task A while trying to do Task B, I don’t have the cognitive capacity to process those two tasks at the same time and do a perfect job on both tasks. It’s not cognitively possible.”

Basically, if you think of your brain like a desktop computer, it’s easy to see how leaving a bunch of tasks – or, as Leroy would called them in this analogy, ‘windows’ – open at one time eats up how much mental energy you have for all of them.

The solution, then, is to fully close those mental ‘windows’, moving to the new task with a plan to return – fully – to it when the new task is complete. The trick of all of this is to make sure you have a plan, an actual plan, to make your return to that task.

According to the University of Washington:

“The ready-to-resume plan needn’t be long or elaborate, Leroy said. Even a minute’s work will do, to note where you left off, and, as Leroy and Glomb write, ‘where to resume, what challenges are left, and/or what actions (you) must postpone but resume later.’”

So, according to the study, all you need to do is to note where you were and create small plan to get back on task so you don’t have to waste the mental energy trying to figure out where you were, which will allow you to complete a task instead of keeping hundreds of them all in a state of flux.

Leroy tested her hypothesis by conducting four studies.

The first study looked into how 202 professionals handled interruptions. The second examined how workers worked on one task while getting interrupted with another. Leroy found that without a plan to return to the original task, the workers kept thinking about the first task while doing the second, creating a rift in their thinking.

Finally, the last two studies examined the benefits of using a ready-to-resume strategy using resume reading and retention as the tasks.

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In the end, Leroy and her team found that a ready-to-resume plan allowed the participants to better complete the original task after being interrupted, which could point to a solution for all of us to employ when we are interrupted at work.

“What I show is that people who have done the ready-to-resume plan make better decisions, and recall more information from those resumes that they just read,” Leroy said.

“It’s an improvement in performance, both in quality of information retained and in the ability to make decisions with complex information.”

Leroy also noted that they did not examine how well the interruption task was performed using the ready-to-resume strategy, though she believes it stands to reason that the strategy wouldn’t work for that task, too. Further research will be needed to fully understand it.

The takeaway here is that our minds work better when we take a second – or a minute – to gather ourselves so we can complete each task fully.

“We have to proactively manage the way we transition between tasks to help our attention be more focused and less distracted or divided among everything we have on our plate,” Leroy concludes.

“The ready-to-resume plan is one simple way to help when dealing with frequent interruptions. In doing so, we actually also help the person who interrupts – because we will be more present in that interaction and our input will be of higher quality.”

Leroy’s research will soon be published in Organizational Science.

Josh Hrala

Josh Hrala

Josh is an HR journalist and ghostwriter who's been covering outplacement and offboarding for over six years. Before pivoting to the HR world, he was a science journalist whose work can be found in Popular Science, ScienceAlert, The Huffington Post, Cracked, Modern Notion, and more.

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