Interruptions have always been a reality of work, as meetings, text or chat messages, emails, and conversations with coworkers endlessly fragment our time and thus our attention. As the Covid-19 global pandemic forced many of us to work from home, the concurrent management of work/non-work responsibilities have added to this already fragmented time. In our recent survey of 202 working professionals, conducted prior to Covid-19, 40% of the respondents reported experiencing more than 10 interruptions per day, with 15% reporting more than 20 interruptions a day. Research across several other surveys suggest that employees — from IT professionals to health care providers — are interrupted every six to 12 minutes. If interruptions are so frequent and seemingly unavoidable, how do they affect our work and what can we do about them?
Earlier research by one of us (Sophie Leroy) has shown that our brains find it difficult to switch attention between tasks. More often than not, part of our attention stays focused on the interrupted task and does not fully switch to the interrupting demand — a term she coined attention residue. This happens because we have a fundamental need for completion that makes switching our attention quite difficult for the brain to execute; we hold on to incomplete work instead of putting it aside even when a switch of focus is necessary. While we may think our attention has moved to the next thing, it hasn’t, at least not fully — a residue remains. Consequently, we perform interrupting tasks with only part of our cognitive resources and risk performing them poorly.
So, are we always at risk of experiencing attention residue when interrupted? Are there conditions that may heighten that risk? Is there something we can do to prevent attention residue and thus minimize the risk of low performance on interrupting tasks?
These are the questions we asked in our research, recently published in Organization Science. We used both survey data and laboratory experiments to dig deep into some of the specific mechanisms of work interruptions. Much of the research on interruptions has focused primarily on the task that gets interrupted. This is important, but only tells part of the story. Here we chose to focus on how the interrupting task is affected by contextual factors. We also provide a practical solution, a “Ready-to-Resume Plan,” that can overcome the negative effects of interruptions, and in particular helps prevent attention residue.
Specifically, our research shows that being interrupted is especially difficult when we anticipate facing time pressure upon resuming interrupted work. In our study, participants started working on a first task — let’s call it Task A. After 5 minutes, we interrupted them unannounced, asking them to stop their incomplete work in order to switch to another task — Task B, the interrupting task.
We split participants into two groups (or experimental conditions). One group was told they would have plenty of time to finish later, while the other group was told they wouldn’t have much time. Participants who thought they would experience time pressure when they returned to Task A showed both high levels of attention residue and significant performance decrements on Task B, the interrupting task: people did not process information carefully, did not notice errors, and when asked to make a decision based on recalled information, they were less likely to identify the optimal solution. In contrast, when participants anticipated that they would have plenty of time to complete the interrupted task, switching away from it was less difficult, such that they didn’t experience attention residue and performed at higher levels on the interrupting demand.
Although our results bring some hope that reduced time pressure can lessen the state of attention residue, we must temper this hope given today’s deadline-driven organizations replete with time pressure. Are we doomed to be in a constant state of attention residue or is there a way out?
We propose the “Ready-to-Resume Plan” as a way to manage interruptions, prevent attention residue, and perform at full capacity on interrupting tasks. The premise of the plan is that if we can put the brain at ease about our ability to complete the interrupted task upon return, we would be able to switch our attention more effectively.
To test this idea, we ran a series of lab experiments. Once again, participants started working on Task A and were interrupted to switch to another task, Task B. In one group, participants immediately switched to the interrupting task, Task B, following the interruption. In another group, we asked participants to take a few minutes before switching to create a “Ready-to-Resume” plan; essentially, to take a minute to note where they were on the interrupted task, Task A, and what they wanted to do and focus on upon return. Then they switched to Task B.
We found that those who engaged in the Ready-to-Resume plan experienced much less attention residue on the interrupting task and performed significantly better on Task B. Recall of information from the interrupting task was significantly improved, suggesting more careful attention to the task. People were also 79% more likely to choose an optimal candidate when Task B asked them to evaluate profiles for a job position, revealing better decision making when dealing with complex information.
The Ready-to-Resume plan took participants less than a minute and yet it yielded significant benefits. This simple and brief practice of taking stock of where one stands on an interrupted task and briefly planning one’s return helps the brain feel more at ease with putting it aside and switching attention to an interrupting demand.
Our work shows that we don’t have to passively succumb to the negative effects of inevitable interruptions. The Ready-to-Resume plan provides the brain the cognitive closure it needs to reduce attention residue so that we can be more present and perform at our full capacity.
Some may argue that the Ready-to-Resume Plan may be difficult to implement when interrupted by a superior or an important client, for example. But it is all in the framing; asking for permission to jot down notes on the interrupted task and thanking people for allowing us to be fully present and “all ears” is generally appreciated. And remember that when you interrupt others, you may also want to encourage them to make a Ready-to-Resume plan so that they can give you their full attention. As an added benefit, such interactions could cause interrupting coworkers to reflect on whether the issue was so pressing that it required an interruption and eventually may foster a higher threshold for interrupting. Yes, interruptions at work may be a fact of organizational life; but with the Ready-to-Resume Plan, we can mitigate their effects.
This article was originally written by Sophie Leroy, Associate Professor at the University of Washington Bothell, School of Business. Her research explores how people manage and allocate time and attention at work and the effects of interruptions on performance. She developed the concept of Attention Residue and studies how to help people have more focused attention at work and be more present in their lives. Full credit goes to HBR, who published this article earlier this year. This article has been reprinted for the purpose of education.