'Interruption Science': Costly Distractions at Work

Technology forces us to juggle competing demands on our attention over the course of our workdays. Alex Chadwick speaks with New York Times Magazine contributor Clive Thompson about "interruption science," the study of the effect of disruptions on job performance.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

And my colleague Alex Chadwick has found a research study that he can truly relate to.

ALEX CHADWICK reporting:

Madeleine, I saw this story in The New York Times Sunday Magazine. They sent me an early copy of it, and I thought about us and our lives and what this is about because it...

(Soundbite of telephone ringing)

CHADWICK: Hold on just a second. Hello?

Unidentified Man: Hey, Alex. I'm sorry, but we really got to do this Iraq interview right now.

CHADWICK: I ca--I'm busy. I'm working on something. Give me a half-hour, can you?

Unidentified Man: OK. And, oh, yeah, we're also ordering lunch right now. Do you need anything?

CHADWICK: I'm OK. I'm OK. I'll get back to you.

Unidentified Man: OK, bye.

CHADWICK: Goodbye. OK, where am I? Here: There is a science called `interruption science,' and what it is is the study of how difficult it is for any of us to get anything done these days. The author of the article is Clive Thompson. He's a contributing writer for the Sunday New York Times Magazine, and I called him to...

(Soundbite of e-mail software's incoming mail alert)

CHADWICK: What's that? Oh, never mind. It's e-mail. It'll wait. And I called him to talk about exactly this. He began with the work of a researcher that he's been talking to.

Mr. CLIVE THOMPSON (Contributor, The New York Times Magazine): It was really a lot worse than this researcher imagined when she started off. She thought maybe people, you know, get these chunks where they can work really hard on something, but in reality we're just sort of skipping back and forth, you know, all the time. And if you take a look at the way that you use a computer--you've got some e-mail open and you've got a Web browser open--and when a Microsoft researcher studied that, she found that the amount of time on average that we look at any one window on a computer is only 20 seconds before we flip over to another one.

CHADWICK: And go to another window and another and another. And as you write in the article, pretty soon it's a common thing--and I'm so relieved to hear this--that people forget what it is they were starting to try to do in the beginning before this series of interruptions began.

Mr. THOMPSON: And then when the interruption is over, only 40 percent of the time you actually go back to what you were doing. The other 60 percent of the time you just wander off.

CHADWICK: So the point of this research that you write about is to try to figure out how to fit these interruptions into a productive life, how to get anything done. And a key finding, it seems to me, is that the interruptions themselves turn out to be useful.

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah, that's right. When I started working on this story, you know, everyone was like, `Well, you know, if you're being interrupted a lot by your e-mail, why don't you just turn your e-mail off and check it twice a day?' And you know, that's certainly a very nice-sounding answer, but it's just not pragmatic for the average person at work because the fact of the matter is a lot of our work relies upon you checking your e-mail, you know, every couple of minutes because stuff moves very quickly. As the social scientists say, our work is interrupt-driven. It's not merely that you get interrupted during work; the interruptions are your work.

CHADWICK: This scientist from Microsoft, very interested in looking at how people actually use Microsoft's software programs, all kinds of programs that are integrated into our daily lives now. What do they propose doing to help people concentrate more and get less distracted by interruptions?

Mr. THOMPSON: One of the simple things that they've discovered is that screen size really matters. Because when you think about your computer screen, it's actually a very small little window. And, you know, as soon as you open up one document it pretty much covers the whole window. So some of what they're working on is ways to sort of optimize the screen space that exists. But another, perhaps more ambitious attempt is to work on artificial intelligence that observes you and knows when you're busy so that when an e-mail comes, it doesn't just automatically set off a ding saying `Hey, there's e-mail.' It actually waits five or 10 minutes until you're finished with whatever you're doing and then gives you the message at the moment when you are, you know, unencumbered and ready to receive it.

CHADWICK: What's driving these inquiries, you say, is a concern with productivity, but maybe there's more to it than that. Maybe if we were interrupted less often we'd be more calm, or we'd lose weight, or I don't know. Who knows?

Mr. THOMPSON: No, you're absolutely right. I mean, a lot of it's being driven by concerns about productivity, but some of it is just being driven by what you could call, you know, quality of life. There's a real sense that people have of just straight-out unhappiness, you know? Not that they're--not that they're not getting things done productively, but just that they feel enormous levels of stress. And, in fact, this is one of the epiphanies of the productivity guru David Allan. He says the problem with modern interruptions is that our brains are not conditioned to either entirely forget or entirely remember things. So when we get interrupted, the things that were sort of--that we're intending to do or trying to pay attention to do get sort of partially lost but partially there, and they just sort of nag at us. And so some of this is about not just making us more productive; it's about making us just happier.

CHADWICK: You know, Clive, I just have the sense these researchers have been following me.

Mr. THOMPSON: (Laughs) Well, yeah, this is--one of the funny things is, you know, I started working this story and I--every time I read a study--every time I read a paper and it outlined something people did to try and cope, I realized `Wow, that's me.' You know, they would talk about how people would try and e-mail themselves reminders so that they would remember to do things. I'm like, `I've done that.' And they would talk about how people would, you know, put little Post-it notes all around the outside of their computer screen to try and remember what it is they're doing so they don't get distracted. And I was like, `Well, I've done that, too.'

CHADWICK: Maybe, you know, human beings just have some sort of proclivity to distraction. Maybe we want to be distracted and that's why we are so easily distracted. And if it weren't e-mail or instant messages or who knows what else, then we'd be going to the water cooler or just down the hall to gossip or something like that.

M. THOMPSON: Well, sure. I mean, in fact, 40 percent of all distractions--and this is what the researchers have found--40 percent of them are actually caused by us deciding `I'm going to stop doing this and do something else.' And I asked them, `Well, why do we do that?' And they said, `Well, it's usually because maybe we just need a break.' You know, maybe you're working on a hard problem and you need to take a few seconds and think about something else, or you need to go to the water cooler, or you need to stretch. Now even though a lot of interruptions are good--they're driven by ourselves--we still face that problem that we get lost in a fog, that we need to somehow find our way back to what we were doing.

CHADWICK: And that's not just, say, getting a little older?

Mr. THOMPSON: Well, you know, it could be. And one question that people asked me was, `Maybe this is just something that people face in their 40s and 50s.' And, you know, `Don't the kids of today--don't they really, you know, thrive off this?' But I heard a lot of persuasive evidence that that's not true. Some researchers were sitting in classrooms of college students--17-, 18-, 19-year-olds--and they were saying, `Well, this is what I work on.' And the students were all, `Oh, my goodness. That's exactly my life.' And it--`and please save us from that.' So I'm not persuaded that there's any big adaptability coming along here.

CHADWICK: Clive Thompson is a contributing writer for the New York Times Sunday Magazine. His article on life hackers appears in this weekend's issue.

Clive, thank you.

Mr. THOMPSON: Thanks a lot.

CHADWICK: So there you have it, Madeleine. That's why I never get anything done. This is your colleague, Alex Chadwick.

BRAND: NPR's DAY TO DAY continues--with interruptions. I'm Madeleine Brand.

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