Earlier this month, we wrote about the vagaries of multi-tasking and how focusing on more than one thing at a time makes office workers both less productive and less happy with their work.
A 2007 study from Microsoft elucidates this concept by establishing just how much time people lose when they are interrupted by email and instant message alerts, two of the most common causes of office multi-tasking.
Microsoft used tracking software on 27 consenting employees over a two-week span to see how they shifted between applications after receiving an alert from Microsoft’s Outlook email program, MSN messenger, Windows Messenger, or Microsoft Office Communicator.
What the company found was that the employees spent on average nearly 10 minutes switching to email or instant messenger after receiving an alert. On top of that, they spent an additional 10 to 15 minutes on other diversions — responding to other emails, opening up new webpages, and the like — before getting back to the task they had been working on prior to receiving the alert.
This means that in total, workers stopped what they were doing for an average of 20 to 25 minutes every time they responded to an instant message or email alert.
Sometimes, the disruptions took even longer. Microsoft reports that 27% of the time one of the employees received an alert, they did not get back to the original task for more than two hours, instead choosing to move on to other work.
In interviews with the researchers who performed the study, employees said their longest delays happened when they forgot the context in which they had been working. For instance, if an employee was midway through preparing a presentation, they might have to go back and re-read what they had originally written to remember what they needed to write next.
Fortunately, the study also includes a few useful tips for how workers can avoid letting email and IM lead them off-track.
For starters, workers can put off responding to an email until they have gotten to a place in their task that they feel comfortable leaving off, such as finishing a paragraph in a report. Workers who did this were more likely to leave the task they were working on for more than two hours, feeling that they were ready to pursue other assignments for a while.
In addition, Microsoft found that employees were able to more quickly return to their work when they left the computer window they were working in visible to them while they managed their inbox. In interviews, employees told the researchers that the open windows reminded them of what they needed to get back to.
Finally, workers said they were able to more quickly recover the context of what they had been working on by using the undo function of Microsoft Office and Excel. By doing this, they were able remind themselves which actions they had taken right before responding to the alerts.