According to US researchers, even momentary interruptions of a few seconds can practically nix one's ability to complete a task.
Interruptions like receiving a text message or a colleague poking his head in the door and interrupting an important conversation can be disastrous for professionals such as airplane mechanics and emergency room doctors, said Erik Altmann, from the Michigan State University, who led the study.
The study, funded by Office of Naval Research and involving 300 people in a sequence-based procedure on a computer found that interruptions of about three seconds doubled the error rate, the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General reports.
"What this means is that our health and safety is on some level, contingent on whether the people looking after it have been interrupted," said Altmann, associate professor of psychology at Michigan.
Altmann said he was surprised that such short interruptions had a large effect. The interruptions lasted no longer than each step of the main task, he noted, so the time factor likely wasn't the cause of the errors.
"So why did the error rate go up?" Altmann asked.
"The answer is that the participants had to shift their attention from one task to another. Even momentary interruptions can seem jarring when they occur during a process that takes considerable thought," Altman said.