Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Making a Task Interruption-Friendly

We are interrupted every 11 minutes. We are interrupted by incoming email, the phone ringing, and colleagues stopping by our office. We even interrupt ourselves sometimes, to go read Facebook or browse the web. You very well may not make it through this post without an interruption. Research suggests that it is hard to recover from an interruption, with it taking us up to 15 minutes to return to focused activity. Given we are interrupted so often that we never achieve full efficiency, interruptions cause a significant loss in productivity.

Picking up a task after an interruption is easier when a person is interrupted at a breakpoint, and when the task being returned to has a clearly achievable short-term outcome. Researchers have tried to use these insights to decrease interruption costs by strategically scheduling interruptions to occur at breakpoints, helping users set goals upon interruption, and reminding users of their goal upon return.

However, we can also change the nature of the task itself to make it more interruption-friendly. Selfsourcing is a way to help people to perform large personal information tasks by breaking them down into small, achievable microtasks. This facilitates recovery from interruptions, benefiting overall productivity and helping people take advantage of time that might otherwise be wasted.

Selfsourcing may be particularly useful during periods of divided attention. Over and over again, research has shown that multitasking leads to loss of overall productivity. For example, nobody can really write a blog post and listen to a presentation at the same time, like I am trying to do right now. People who try to do both end up not really doing either well. I have found, however, that I can perform very small selfsourcing microtasks while attending fully to something else, because the small task size allows me to do them quickly during the inevitable downtime. Perhaps I should figure out how to selfsource my blogging.

Related paper:
J. Teevan, D.J. Liebling, and W. Lasecki. Selfsourcing Personal TasksCHI 2014 WiP.

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