Minor interruptions can cause errors in daily tasks

A glance at a text message – one of many seemingly tiny interruptions that occur every day – can distract people long enough to make mistakes while they work on  daily tasks.

That’s what researchers at Michigan State University, who considered the effect of minor distractions, discovered when they examined the influence that such interruptions could have.

In their study, they asked 300 people to complete a sequence-based procedure on a computer and found that asking them to stop for as little as three seconds doubled the error rate in the task at hand. When participants were told to type two letters before returning to their assigned task, they were twice as likely to disrupt the sequence.

“So why did the error rate go up? The answer is that the participants had to shift their attention from one task to another,” said Erik Altmann, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at Michigan State. “Even momentary interruptions can seem jarring when they occur during a process that takes considerable thought.”

According to the Journal of Experimental Psychology, the study showed that brief distractions that are common in daily life both at home and at the workplace can lead to serious errors in tasks that requires attention to detail and concentration. For medical personnel who respond to emergencies or aircraft mechanics, whose work can keep an airplane from experiencing technical failure, those mistakes can be life or death situations, the journal reported.

The researchers suggested that professionals whose jobs have significant impact on others’ health and well-being should consider designing environments in which there is some measure of protection from interruptions.

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