RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Getting instant alerts that you have an email or message might make you feel productive. But new research out of the University of Cardiff in Wales illustrates that the opposite is true: Instant computer alerts inhibit productivity.
THE DETAILS: Psychologists from Cardiff University in Wales conducted a series of experiments to assess the relationship between computer-initiated alerts—visual or auditory computer alerts saying that you have an email, for instance—and productivity and workflow. Their study participants were asked to complete 25 tasks on the computer, during which six to eight tasks would be interrupted by computer-generated notifications. Each of the interrupted tasks was matched to an identical but uninterrupted control task. As a result, the researchers were able to track both how long the interruptions due to reading the computer alerts took, and how long it took the participants to return to the task at hand. What they found was that even a five-second interruption caused people to take longer than normal to complete the next step in a simple six-step computer task.
WHAT IT MEANS: Even seemingly trivial interruptions like a computer alert can have a big impact on productivity. "Our experiments used very simple tasks with very brief interruptions in order to get an idea of the basic time cost of interruptions—which was about five seconds," says lead study author Helen M. Hodgetts, PhD, a research associate in the School of Psychology at Cardiff University in Wales. "However, given the amount of information you have to keep in mind when carrying out an office-based task, it seems entirely plausible that it might take over a minute to mentally retrieve all the different aspects of the task at hand and get back to working at the same rate at which you were working when you left the task," she says. In fact, one recent study found that it takes users an average of 64 seconds to return to a normal work rate after reading an email. Multiply that number by the many email interruptions you might experience in a typical workday, and you have a very serious impediment to getting things done.
Here's how to minimize interrupting alerts in your workday:
• Select your email package with instant alerts in mind. "Email packages can differ in the types of notification they use to alert the user about incoming mail," says Hodgetts. "Some use discreet alerts that appear in the top corner of the screen, while others can be large and intrusive, appearing centrally on the screen and obscuring much of it." As you might imagine, research has found the latter to be more disruptive. If possible, choose an email package that offers discreet alerts and the option of continuing with your work before answering the alert (some require that you answer the alert the moment it pops onto the screen). Check your current software for these options, and use them.
• Set an auditory signal, not a visual one, to alert you to new messages. "Auditory stimuli tend to be processed relatively automatically, allowing you to continue working and consolidate your place in your current activity before switching to the interrupting task," says Hodgetts. "The tendency with an unexpected visual alert is to divert your gaze toward it, causing a break in your concentration even before you engage in the interrupting task of reading the email."
• Turn off the alerts. If you can't revise your message-alert systems to your liking and can't keep them turned off all the time, consider switching them off when you're engaged in a task or project that requires a lot of focus, then turning them back on when you're done, suggests. Hodgetts. Similarly, set your email alerts to occur only for messages sent from certain important people, or that have been tagged as high-priority.