Your BlackBerry buzzes to signal a new message, a coworker stops by your office unannounced, a meeting reminder pops up on your desktop screen. Although brief, the time it takes to silence your phone, say hey to Jim, or grab the mouse and close the window is enough to make you screw up whatever project you'd been focused on. A new study found that interruptions of only 2.8 seconds can double the error rate of sequence-based tasks – things like keying in codes, scoring tests, and filling out online forms – while distractions lasting 4.4 seconds can triple the number of mistakes.
Researchers from Michigan State University asked 300 people to complete a series of ordered tasks on a computer and then interrupted them sporadically with counter-instructions that made them break briefly from their routine. Sure enough, switching focus from one thing to the other and then back again made for far more mistakes than when they'd first tackled the tasks uninterrupted.
The researchers say that such seemingly minor distractions could spell disaster especially for high-pressure professions such as emergency room doctors and airplane mechanics. But even if your project-at-hand isn't life or death – you just want to get it right – it pays to put the smartphone on silent and lock your door.