UMN research shows planning helps productivity

Creating a “ready-to-resume” plan when interrupted can increase productivity and improve performance on an interrupting task.

Illustration by Jane Borstad.

Jane Borstad

Illustration by Jane Borstad.

Kelly Busche

New research shows focus suffers when tasks are interrupted and workers don’t have a plan in place.

Creating a plan to resume interrupted work can increase productivity and improve performance on an interrupting task, according to a new paper co-authored by a University of Minnesota professor.

The paper, co-authored by Carlson School of Management professor Theresa Glomb, is a combination of four studies. One study asked 202 employees of major Midwest corporations about their interruption experiences at work, and the other studies measured subjects’ ability to focus when switching from task to task. 

Two of the studies showed that when interrupted, people struggled to focus on the new task at hand and their performance on the new task suffered as a result.

The brain has “a hard time letting go” of tasks when interrupted, said co-author Sophie Leroy, a faculty member at the University of Washington and former Carlson professor.

Jumping from one task to the next is difficult for the brain because it’s challenged by “attention residue,” according to the study. The brain’s attention is split between the interrupting task and the former task, she said.

“Basically, we have a hard time letting go of the work that we were doing right before the interruption, and switching our focus to the interrupting task,” Leroy said.

Our brains process tasks better one at a time, Leroy said, rather than in a parallel way — which the brain tries to do when faced with an interrupting task.

“Our brain truly tries to keep the interrupted work on our mind so that we don’t forget about it,” she said.

To combat interruptions like phone messages and co-workers, two studies from the paper suggested making a “ready-to-resume” plan.

“We really wanted to find a way to help people cope with those interruptions [and] transition more effectively,” Leroy said.

The study found that upon being interrupted, people who consciously thought about where they left off and wrote it down performed better on the interrupting task than people without a plan. This strategy gives the brain more control over the tasks at hand and allows it to transition more effectively, Leroy said.

Brittni Faddoul, a junior studying architecture, said she dedicates a lot of time to her major and on-campus job. However, her work is frequently interrupted by texts, emails and calls. Leroy said this is a common issue, as many people have the need to be readily available by phone.

Limiting distractions, like emails and messages on her phone, helps Faddoul focus, she said.

Hana Saifullah, a junior studying architecture, said one project can often consume an entire day. To maintain focus, Saifullah said she plans out her tasks — working on only one project at a time.

“I create a milestone for the work,” she said.

Leroy said future studies will hopefully show planning helps people return to work that was interrupted.

“But at least the data we have is already pointing to the fact that the return will be easier if you do that plan,” she said.