You might want to persuade your boss to scrap those open-office plans. A study from Michigan State University found that distractions—even short ones lasting less than three seconds—can double the number of mistakes we make.
The researchers asked 300 MSU students to complete a complex, multi-step task on the computer. After roughly every sixth step completed, a “CAPTCHA” box would pop up on screen and remain there until students typed the characters into the text bar and pressed “Enter.”
In the first trial, the code was only four characters long, and students took an average of 4.4 seconds to get rid of the interruption. In the second trial, the code was two characters, and the mean interruption time was 2.8 seconds. According to the researchers, students made three times as many errors after the 4.4 second interruption and two times as many errors after the 2.8 second interruption.
They 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.
However, even though these aren’t new ideas, seeing the numbers can be a great kick in the butt to actually implement all of them. Where’s your phone right now? When’s the last time you looked at Gmail? What about browsed social media? For most of us (cough, including me), there’s room for improvement.
On the bright side, it looks like our mistakes will go down by 50% if we finally distraction-proof our lives. (Oh, and open-office folks, here are four ways to stave off those distractions and actually focus.)