When Working, Minor Interruptions Can Cause Big Problems

By: Jenna Savage


When it comes to studying, breaks are important. Taking the time to remove yourself from your books and go for a short walk or have a snack can help your mind stay fresh. It also has the potential to keep you from studying too hard and burning out. But what about short breaks, such as taking a moment to read a text message or answer a roommate’s question? Minor interruptions when you’re trying to work on homework or study for a test may seem harmless, but it turns out that they may actually hurt your progress, according to a recent PsychCentral article.

Researchers at Michigan State University and led by Erik Altmann, Ph.D., examined 300 participants as they completed a computer task, during which they determined whether displayed letters were closer to the beginning or the end of the alphabet. The researchers occasionally interrupted this task by asking the participants to type two letters, a process that only claimed the participants’ attention for three seconds.

The interruptions had a big impact on the participants’ focus. After typing the letters, they were twice as likely to make mistakes. This means that the brief interruptions made a big difference. Altmann suggests that short interruptions can be “jarring” for individuals who are working hard on something that requires a lot of thought and concentration.

The study, which is the first of its kind, is published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. More research about the effect of short interruptions on completing tasks is needed, however the study lends itself to question what the impact of brief interruptions could be on those who work in fields that require intense concentration for the sake of safety.

It also suggests that students who are trying to focus on homework assignments and studying may want to consider putting their cell phones away before they get started. They may also want to go somewhere quiet, where roommates and family members cannot interrupt. The fewer distracts there are, the least likely they will be to make mistakes. This is especially important when it comes to tasks that are timed, like exams.

Of course, breaks are still important, but they should be taken strategically, after sections of work have been completed, so that they don’t interrupt concentration in a way that can be detrimental.

Next week, we’ll discuss some ways that you can increase focus and decrease distractions, which will help you succeed at completing tasks and assignments without making errors.