A study by Erik Altmann, associate professor of psychology, found that brief interruptions doubled the error rate for participants performing a difficult sequential task. The research was done at the University of Michigan on behalf of the US Navy, and it has widespread implications.
“So why did the error rate go up?” Altmann said. “The answer is that the participants had to shift their attention from one task to another. Even momentary interruptions can seem jarring when they occur during a process that takes considerable thought.”
If you think a momentary check of a smart phone or a quick question from a colleague won’t impact your work, think again. To avoid or reduce errors (for yourself or your team members), you need to reduce distractions and put yourself in a literal or virtual “cone of silence.” This can be a challenge whether you work in an operating room, office building, factory, coffee shop, or at home.
Some of the newest, hippest work environments–the collaborative kind, like CoCo Minneapolis–are particularly vulnerable to distractions. The goal of these new work environments is to maximize interaction, collaboration, and osmotic communication. With osmotic communication, “information flows into the background hearing of members of the team, so that they pick up relevant information as though by osmosis. This is normally accomplished by seating them in the same room. Then, when one person asks a question, others in the room can either tune in or tune out, contributing to the discussion or continuing with their work,” according to Alistair Cockburn author of Crystal Clear: A Human Powered Methodology for Small Teams.
Some people are really good at tuning out potentially distracting noises. If you’re not one of those people, however, you might need to take extra measures to protect your concentration–like wearing headphones, untethering from your phone, or putting a “Please Do Not Disturb” sign on your door/cube.