The faster your skills, the more interruptions hurt you: Here's why, and how to fight back

ByJames Dennin

They say practice makes perfect, but, at least at work, too much practice might actually hurt you — even if your performance reviews seem stellar.

Really? Really. In fact, a new Michigan State University study even suggests that the better you are at performing a task, the more likely you are to make mistakes caused by an interruption. As you gain greater skill, your ability to keep track of your workflow actually gets worse, the research showed.

The new study measured how well about 200 undergrads performed on a series of tasks designed to spot mistakes, called the UNRAVEL test. In each task, subjects got a prompt with a number and a letter, and they had to answer questions, including whether the character was underlined or in italics, and whether the character was near or far to the front of the alphabet. The subjects had to keep track of where in the sequence they were. 

"We designed [the test] to try to capture some aspects of what people do when they're working at their desks or in their real jobs, whether it's data analysis or doing your taxes or something," said Professor Erik Altmann, the lead researcher. "You have a series of steps, and each step has a correct response. ... We're trying to catch that 'Where was I?' moment."

The undergrads did the test twice, with a four-day gap, to see if they got any better with practice. The researchers also interrupted them during the test with a simple typing task, to see whether the distraction had any effect on their ability to complete the test.

What the study authors found was that after a little practice, people got better at taking the UNRAVEL test — but they were also more likely to make mistakes once they got interrupted. Why?

When you're good at something, Altmann said, you're more likely to do it quickly. And when people completed the UNRAVEL test faster, they were less likely to remember where it was they left off after an interruption. 

Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock

Are workplace distractions a big problem for you? Don't let noisy coworkers or overly long to-do lists get in the way of a productive day. Here are three crucial moves that will help you kill interruptions at the office, so you can work without error — and head home earlier. 

1. Shut off your phone until lunchtime, and then again until 5 p.m.

When it comes to getting stuff done, your phone is not your friend. And it can distract you even if you aren't engaging with it.

One study from researchers at Florida State University found that notifications and buzzes are just as likely to disrupt your focus as actually picking up a call or shooting off a text. For that reason, if you're constantly getting buzzed throughout the day, there's a good argument for silencing that phone — or even shutting off or hiding it. 

Of course, plenty of people use their phone for work, but that's no reason why you need be available 24/7: If you're anxious about hitting silent, let people know the hours you are available in your voicemail recording. (Bonus tip: Consider smiling while you record your message, which will make your voice sound more approachable.)

2. Use anti-distraction devices and apps 

Even if the trend toward open offices is winding down, many workplaces still see high levels of distraction and noise. Need to keep loud coworkers' conversations from interrupting your flow? A highly-rated pair of noise-canceling headphones will kill two birds with one stone: cutting down on noise while sending a powerful signal that you don't want to be bugged.

As for what to listen to? There are many recordings of white noise you can find for free, or you might download an app like Rainy Mood, Coffitivity, Binaural Beats or Noisli. Plenty of distraction-slaying tracks abound on YouTube. If you crave vocal music, but find lyrics distracting, throw on a playlist of songs in a foreign language. Finally, if tweets or Facebook messages prove too difficult a temptation for you to resist, you can fight back by downloading an extension like StayFocusedSelfControl or Cold Turkey, which let you set up a temporary firewall around your favorite distracting sites.

3. Improve your memory

A big reason why interruptions mess up highly skilled workers, Altmann said, has to do with how human memory works: "If you have two objects ... the closer together they are in space, the harder it is to tell them apart."

"The same thing happens with events in our memory," he said. "The closer they happen in time, the harder they are to keep straight."

The competence of skilled workers — whether you're a nurse or an attorney — Altmann said, often depends on remembering the sequence of steps required to do a job. So it's possible that improving your memory with visual aids could make you more successful and distraction-proof in certain jobs.

Whether or not you need help preventing work interruptions, the Michigan State University study has important insights. At the very least, Altmann said, the findings of his study show the danger of that ubiquitous workplace faux pas — interrupting someone when they're busy.

"When people get interrupted, sometimes you see them get annoyed ... possibly because they understand the performance implications of being interrupted," Altmann said. "So think twice before you interrupt."

Finally, if you do mess up at work — because of a distraction or not — it's probably not as big a deal as you think it is. Career experts recommend owning up to errors, but not overdoing it with your apology.

A simple, "I'm sorry I made a mistake; it'll be fixed soon" email will do.

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