Study: Tiny distractions cause double the mistakes

Researchers find that even the smallest disruptions kill concentration -- and cause error rates to spike

By Katie McDonough
January 11, 2013 11:40PM (UTC)
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If you want to get something done, you might want to turn off your phone.

A new study led by Michigan State University found that even the smallest interruptions -- like that really quick glance at an incoming message -- derail productivity and lead to big mistakes.


Researchers asked 300 people to perform a sequence-based task, and found that interruptions lasting just seconds managed to double the error rate.

Little distractions are everywhere, from smartphones to chatty co-workers, but the resulting errors can have big consequences. While handing in an expense report a few minutes late isn't the end of the world, small mistakes in high-pressure fields like air traffic control and emergency medicine can be catastrophic.

“What this means is that our health and safety is, on some level, contingent on whether the people looking after it have been interrupted,” Erik Altmann, lead researcher and associate professor of psychology, told Michigan State University Today.


Altmann added that he was surprised to find that the length of a disruption didn't matter, "Even momentary interruptions can seem jarring when they occur during a process that takes considerable thought.”

Are there possible solutions other than working in a sensory deprivation tank? If you want to be productive and error-free, turn "all cellphones off at the very least," says Altmann.

Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at

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