Can you relate to this? You arrive at work and start checking emails. Half way through writing a reply, you decide a coffee is in order. On the way to the coffee machine, a colleague asks if you could help review a report. The phone is ringing as you walk back to your desk. While you are on the phone to the client, you are alerted to three more emails. An hour later you see your still empty cup at the coffee machine, realise your client’s file is on your colleague’s desk, you have no idea where the report is and you still haven’t sent the email you started drafting because of the interruptions.
If you feel that distractions make it more difficult for you to do and enjoy your job, you are right. Researchers have found that even tiny interruptions derail your thinking and increase mistakes.[i] In one study, people performed a sequence based procedure on a computer. Erik Altman and his team found that interruptions of only three seconds doubled the error rate. Other researchers found that distractions can increase the time it takes you to do a task by between 20 and 40%.[ii]
The impact of interruptions in office is now so great, that we have interruptions researchers. Gloria Marks is one of these and her team spent three days studying a group of office workers and timing everything they did. They found:[iii]
- The average time people spent on a task before being interrupted or switching was about three minutes.
- People interrupted themselves about 44% of the time; the rest of the interruptions came from external sources.
- On average it took 23 minutes and 15 seconds to return to interrupted tasks and most people did two intervening tasks before returning to the original task.
Not only do the interruptions mean it takes longer for us to do the task, we are also not as clever as we do them. Alessandro Acquisiti[iv] examined how much brain power was lost if you are interrupted by a phone call or email. Participants were asked to read a short passage and answer questions about it. The participants who were interrupted performed an incredible 20% worse than those who were not.
When you work in law, an inability to concentrate while doing legal research can lead you to miss a case, statute or piece of evidence which may assist your client. Constant distractions can lower the quality of advice you provide, the quality of preparation you do for a court appearance and your enjoyment of the job. They can also make it difficult for you to find the mental space necessary for complex legal issues which may require detailed structuring advice.
How Marshmallows Can Help
Given how many interruptions are in a modern legal workplace, is there anything you can do? It is possible to train yourself not to give in to distractions in the same way that some of the children in the famous Stanford marshmallow did with their desire to eat a marshmallow.
In the experiment, young children were seated at a table in front of a marshmallow and told they could it now or if they could wait until the researcher came back into the room, they would get a second marshmallow. A few ate the marshmallow straight away. The rest tried to wait for the researcher to return so they would get a second marshmallow. Of those who tried to wait, only one-third were successful and received a second marshmallow. Later in life, the children who waited became the most successful. They had better education, higher paying jobs, a lower BMI, better relationships and tended not to have addictions or criminal records.
Researchers from another study done in Dunedin, New Zealand[v] were shocked to find that a child’s level of self-control was just as important as predicting their financial success and health later in life as social class, wealth, family of origin or IQ.
Are You A One Or Two Marshmallow Person At Work?
When you hear an email alert, your phone tells you a text has arrived or you overhear a conversation in a nearby office, it is easy to want to immediately gratify yourself and find out what is going on. If you stop focusing on the report you are writing and immediately check the email you would be displaying the traits of a ‘one marshmallow person’. If you could hold the desire to find out what is in the email until you have finished the report, you would be displaying the traits of a ‘two marshmallow person’. You would finish the report sooner and make fewer mistakes.
Dealing with distractions in a work environment might just be as simple as reminding yourself to be a ‘two marshmallow person’. This small act of personal discipline which will pay dividends.
[i] Erik Altman, Associate Professor of Psychology at Michigan State University in 2013.
[ii] An American study reported in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that it took students far longer to solve complicated maths problems when they had to switch to other tasks. They were up to 40% slower.
[iii] “Too Many Interruptions At Work”, Gallup Business Journal, Gloria Mark, Associate Professor at the Donald Bren School of Information and computer Sciences at the University of California, Irvine and a leading expert on work.
[iv] A professor of Information Technology and psychologist Eyal Peer at Carnegie Melon.
[v] Terrie E. Moffitt et al, “A Gradient OF Childhood Self-Control Predicts Health, Wealth and Public Safety”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108, no. 7 (February 15, 2011): 2693-98, http://www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1010076108