© Academy of Management Review 2003, Vol. 28, No.3, 494-507. NOTE WORK INTERRUPTED: A CLOSER LOOK AT THE ROLE OF INTERRUPTIONS IN ORGANIZATIONAL LIFE QUINTUS R. JETT JENNIFER M. GEORGE Rice University We discuss four key types of work interruptions-intrusions, breaks, distractions, and discrepancies-having different causes and consequences, and we delineate the principle features of each and specify when each kind of interruption is likely to have positive or negative consequences for the person being interrupted. By discussing in detail the multiple kinds of interruptions and their potential for positive or negative consequences, we provide a means for organizational scholars to treat interruptions and their consequences in more discriminating ways. Management scholars and practitioners gen- Mintzberg, 1990; Thomas & Ayres, 1998). Given erally define interruptions as incidents or occur- the fact that many jobs entail multiple and shift- rences that impede or delay organizational ing tasks, the onset of an extra activity that members as they attempt to make progress on requires immediate attention can interrupt a work tasks. Therefore, they typically think of person's work on a current task (Cellier & Ey- interruptions as disruptive for organizational rolle, 1992; Kirmeyer, 1988). Multiple tasks with members. Grove, for example, describes the un- widely different time horizons-some that can expected visits that managers experience rou- be completed in single sittings and others in- tinely as "the plague of managerial work" (1983: volving months-long project spans or years-long 67). Similarly, Perlow (1999) proposes that the strategic spans (Jacques, 1982)-can cause peo- frequent coworker interruptions experienced by ple to interrupt work on one task to attend to software engineers lead to "a time famine" another. wherein the engineers are plagued by the sense Even the physical and psychological work en- of having more job responsibilities than the time vironment can foster interruptions. Informal in which to do them. Even the way organization work climates and open office layouts, designed members typically define interruptions (e.g., as something that breaks continuity [Webster's to promote flexibility and conserve space, bring Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary]) has negative people close together and increase the likeli- undertones. hood of unplanned physical encounters that in- Such negative perceptions notwithstanding, terrupt a person's work (Oldham, Kulik, & interruptions are ubiquitous in organizational Stepina, 1991; Perlow, 1999). Background noise or life, and they occur frequently, in a variety of the nearby conversations of others may be a ways and forms. For example, unexpected meet- nuisance, interrupting a person's concentration ings and conversations throughout the day in- (Oldham et aI., 1991). terrupt the work patterns of managers, thwart- Moreover, advances in information technol- ing opportunities for extended, isolated periods ogy have increased the number of ways that one of reflection (Berger & Merritt, 1998; Grove, 1983; person or group can interrupt another. For ex- ample, e-mail and other forms of electronic com- munication have joined telephones and pagers We greatly appreciate the comments and suggestions of as communication media whose pervasive use Paul Goodman, Barbara Lawrence. Gerardo Okhuyseri, former editor Ed Conlon. and the three anonymous reviewers has increased the possibility of interruptions in on earlier versions of this article. a person's work (e.g., Cutrell, Czerwinski, & Hor- 494 2003 Jett and George 495 vitz, 2001; Czerwinski, Cutrell, & Horvitz, 2000; between the time spent on a task and the mag- Speier, Valacich, & Vessey, 1999). nitude and quality of work output). In work en- Although interruptions occur frequently in or- vironments where organization members are ganizationallife, they have received limited at- gaining greater control over when and how they tention in the management and organizational work because of flextime initiatives and the pro- literature. A classic study, which showed that liferation of computing and communication de- interrupted tasks are recalled more easily vices (Ciulla, 2000), it becomes even more vital (Zeigarnik, 1927), spurred occasional research to understand the nature and consequences of interest in interruptions (e.g., Gillie & Broad- different kinds of interruptions. bent, 1989; Kirmeyer, 1988; Schiffman & Greist- Bousquet, 1992), especially in recent years (Ed- INTERRUPTIONS AS INTRUSIONS wards & Gronlund, 1998; Fisher, 1998; Flynn et aI., 1999; Okhuysen, 2001; Perlow, 1999; Speier et An intrusion is an unexpected encounter ini- aI., 1999; Waller, 1999; Zijlstra, Roe, Leonora, & tiated by another person that interrupts the flow Krediet, 1999). As yet, however, there is "no sys- and continuity of an individual's work and tematic body of research on what physical or brings that work to a temporary halt. Unsched- psychological characteristics make an inter- uled personal visits or phone calls, for example, rupt" (Moray, 1993: 120). Moreover, meaningful are intrusions that impose the need to spend distinctions between different conceptualiza- time with others on activities that may not be tions of interruptions have yet to be proposed in instrumental for completion of the task currently the existing literature. being performed (e.g., Coates, 1990; Vernon, Given that multiple and diverse interpreta- 1990). Consider the example of a faculty member tions of interruptions are relevant to under- who is attempting to complete a manuscript for standing their role in organizational life, in this submission to a scholarly journal by a certain paper we bring together research from various deadline. As students and colleagues in the office bodies of literature to develop an integrated per- or a spouse and children at home frequently in- spective on interruptions and their potential trude upon the writing of the paper, the professor consequences. Based on our integrated perspec- may be less likely to meet the deadline. Each time tive, we distinguish four interruption types: in- work on the paper has to come to a halt because of trusions, breaks, distractions, and discrepan- unplanned personal interactions, the author has cies. We define and characterize each of these fewer available minutes and hours, and ulti- types and propose conditions under which each mately fewer days, to complete the writing. interruption type is likely to have negative and positive consequences for the person whose Perspectives on Intrusions work is being interrupted. Systematically addressing different types of Intrusions are normally viewed from a time interruptions and their potential consequences management perspective. Following a philoso- provides additional clarity and precision to the phy and practice that addresses the mastery of study of how organizational members structure timing and scheduling in order to increase out- their time and manage their work. Our inte- put, time management proponents advocate grated perspective on interruptions is relevant that individuals and organizations minimize the to a number of fields of study, such as time occurrence of intrusions (Taylor, 1911). A time management (Perlow, 1999), the boundaries be- mcmnqement perspective suggests that intru- tween work and leisure in organizations (e.g., sions are disruptive for a person performing Ciulla, 2000; Perlow, 1998), and the study of pro- work tasks to the extent that the intrusions occur fessions and jobs in which individuals regularly frequently, are unexpected, and consume long perform multiple, complex tasks under condi- spans of time. Consequently, time management tions of autonomy and time pressure. Discrimi- writings prescribe managing the timing of intru- nating among different types of interruptions sions so that they are more infrequent and pre- and their potential positive and negative conse- dictable and controlling the amount of time that quences also may contribute to our understand- intrusions consume. ing of the determinants of individual and organ- An example of a strategy for controlling the izational productivity (i.e., the relationship predictability of intrusions in organizations is 496 Academy of Management Review July the institution of "quiet time," whereby members tial positive consequences are often overlooked. of an organization agree to a standard period of Negative consequences can occur when avail- clock time during which coworkers will not in- able time to work on a critical task is scarce. trude on each other and organizational mem- Unscheduled interactions with others consume bers can concentrate on their solitary work time that could be spent on critical tasks, and (Coates, 1990; Perlow, 1999). Another strategy is these intrusions can leave a person with insuffi- attempting to group similar kinds of intrusions cient time to meet a deadline, achieve a goal, or into batches that are handled at pre-established simply complete a task. Perlow (1999) illustrates, times (e.g., faculty establishing office hours for in an ethnographic study, how frequent interrup- their students, or checking e-mail and voice- tions by managers and coworkers can frustrate an mail only at predetermined times). individual's efforts to complete work and can cre- When intrusions occur unexpectedly, one ate the sensation of having more responsibilities could refrain from inviting an unexpected guest than the time available in which to meet them. to sit down or could limit the conversation of an Additional negative effects related to time unanticipated phone call to less than five min- pressure may include heightened feelings of utes. One could also create standard responses stress and anxiety, as the person being inter- for the most common intrusions or have files and rupted recognizes that less time is available records well organized so that when managers and that he or she may be falling short in reach- or coworkers intrude with requests, relevant in- ing task milestones. Such negative conse- formation is close at hand (Grove, 1983). Thus, quences of intrusions are most likely to occur time management proponents advocate the use when the person being interrupted has a sense of tactics and strategies that manage intrusions of urgency about completing critical tasks. Fur- by controlling their timing and length to periods thermore, intrusions can hinder an individual's of time when they will have the least deleterious ability to reach a state of total involvement in effect on the completion of primary tasks. the task being performed. Such states occur The disruption that results for an intrusion is when a person is intrinsically motivated and typically thought of in a negative light. How- actively engaged in a task without a sense of ever, a more in-depth exploration of intrusions time consciousness, and these conditions are suggests that they can have negative or positive generally associated with concepts of "flow" consequences, depending on a variety of fac- and timelessness (e.g., Csikszentmihalyi, 1975; tors, including who initiates the intrusion as Csikszentmihalyi & LeFevre, 1989; Mainemelis, well as the content and function of the un- 2001). When an intrusion occurs, the disturbance planned interaction. For instance, a manager and the subsequent social interaction that may who initiates random encounters with his or her ensue can disrupt the focused attention of a employees to gather real-time information that person who is working intently, reinstating time would likely be lacking in a written report (Kot- consciousness and a sense of time famine when ter, 1982) can be provided with valuable infor- there are many other activities to perform. mation. Moreover, these manager-initiated in- To summarize, intrusions may have negative trusions can lead to improved communication consequences for the person being interrupted and the development of high-quality relations to the extent that they result in insufficient time with subordinates. Further, employees who find to perform time-sensitive tasks, stress or anxiety it disruptive to be interrupted by others can, at associated with heightened feelings of time the same time, identify many of these same in- pressure, and/or a disturbance in a person's terrupting activities as helpful for their own state of total involvement in the task being per- work (Perlow, 1999: 75). The following analysis of formed (see Table 1). these issues reveals the potential negative and Intrusions, however, can also be beneficial for positive consequences of intrusions. the person being interrupted, and recognition of these benefits is crucial in order to take advan- tage of them. Otherwise, potentially beneficial Intrusions: Consequences for the Person Being intrusions are likely to be curtailed, since they will Interrupted be perceived in a negative light. Positive conse- The potential negative consequences of intru- quences occur for the person being interrupted sions are often recognized, whereas the poten- when an intrusion results in the transmission or 2003 Jett and George 497 TABLE 1 Each Interruption Type and Its Potential Consequences Type of Negative Consequences for the Person Being Positive Consequences for the Person Being Interruption Interrupted Interrupted Intrusion Insufficient time to perform time-sensitive tasks, Informal feedback and information sharing stress and anxiety associated with heightened unlikely to occur through other, more feelings of time pressure, and/or a disruption established means in a person's state of total involvement in the task being performed Break Procrastination (i.e., excessive delays in starting Alleviation of fatigue or distress, a rhythm and or continuing work on a task) and/or pace of work enhancing job satisfaction and significant amounts of time spent relearning performance, and/or opportunities for essential details of the work being performed incubation of ideas on creative tasks Distraction Mediocre performance when the person's work is Enhanced performance when the distraction complex, demanding, and requires learning helps filter out other irritating environmental and one's full attention and/or when the stimuli and/or increases stimulation levels on person has particular traits that make him or routine tasks her more vulnerable or sensitive to distractions (e.g., lack of stimulus-screening capabilities or a Type A personality) Discrepancy An intense, paralyzing negative emotional Mindful, effortful, and controlled processing of reaction or continuous automatic processing of information and/or the recognition of the need task-related information, if the discrepancy is for change and stimulation of action suppressed or denied exchange of information that is critical to the qual- through other channels, and indiscriminately ity or completion of the task at hand. For example, curtailing intrusions may prove disadvanta- unscheduled interruptions by coworkers, subordi- geous. On the whole, intrusions have positive nates, or clients can provide individuals with consequences for the person being interrupted valuable information that might not be forthcom- to the extent that they provide informal feed- ing through more established and formal means, back and promote information sharing that is such as client planning sessions (Sutton & Kelley, unlikely to occur through more established 1997) or department activity reports (Kotter, 1982). means (Table 1). Further, although an intrusion by a subordinate Because the time management perspective who is performing a delegated task may inconve- pervades many organizations and work set- nience a supervisor, it may help the subordinate tings, the prevailing inclination among organi- performing the delegated work improve his or her zational members at all levels is to deal with understanding of the task and forestall problems intrusions as if they were all negative, not real- and lost time in the future. izing that their control or elimination might re- Although intrusions, if improperly handled, sult in performance shortfalls. We have shown can destructively consume scarce time and ef- that some intrusions can have positive conse- fort, they can also result in the constructive use quences. In order to handle the diverse conse- of time to the extent that they result in increased quences of intrusions, organizations must de- feedback and information sharing that might velop ways to manage the tension between the not otherwise occur. Carrying on with our exam- need to sequester individuals to allow them to ple, a professor who is working on a paper can complete their work and the need to encourage be intruded on by a colleague asking to borrow individuals to accept intrusions as a potential some journals. While looking for the specific source of informal feedback and information volumes, the professor mentions the topic of the sharing (Perlow, 1999). paper, and her colleague then informs her of a new book on the topic written by one of the INTERRUPTIONS AS BREAKS experts in the field. This kind of spontaneous feedback and information sharing that can arise Breaks are planned or spontaneous recesses out of intrusions often does not take place from work on a task that interrupt the task's flow 498 Academy of Management Review July and continuity. Like an intrusion, a break is a recreational or rejuvenating function for individ- halt in an individual's work on a task, but, un- uals who have become bored or have grown like an intrusion, it entails anticipated or self- tired of their work or become fatigued. At the initiated time away from performing work to same time, breaks can also potentially be dis- accommodate personal needs and daily ruptive to the flow of work and the completion of rhythms. Breaks reflect the recognition that or- a task. For instance, excessive breaks may re- ganizational members cannot sustain work ef- sult in procrastination that leads to costly de- forts indefinitely throughout the work day. Work lays. Following is an examination of the poten- can be naturally punctuated by breaks dictated tial consequences of breaks. by work progression, punctuated by presched- uled breaks at set times, or spontaneously punc- Breaks: Consequences for the Person Taking tuated by organizational members as they see Time Off fit. In terms of our running example, the profes- sor might take a break after completing work on The potential negative consequences of a major section of the paper, might take a pre- breaks for the person being interrupted include scheduled break to have lunch, or might take a the loss of available time to complete a task break when she draws a blank and cannot seem and, perhaps more significant, a temporary dis- to find a way to handle a challenging problem. engagement from the task being performed. Al- Within the context of the ebb and flow of the though a person may feel inclined to take a intensity of a person's performance of a task, a break, a break can nevertheless obstruct the break provides a period of idle time (from the person's ability to complete important work re- perspective of the primary task) to rejuvenate for sponsibilities when the break either consumes the resumption of work. excessive amounts of time or disrupts the mo- mentum gained from working continuously on a task. Perspectives on Breaks Having less time to complete tasks is the most The relatively few studies that directly ad- obvious potential negative consequence of dress breaks indicate that people need occa- breaks. Sometimes a break occurs because of a sional changes in the tempo of work or an oscil- person's blocks or resistance to starting or con- lation between work and recreation, particularly tinuing to work on a task, and such breaks grad- when they are fatigued (Henning, Sauter, Sol- ually erode the available time to work and cre- vendy, & Krieg, 1989) or are working continu- ate conditions of further distress for the ously for an extended period (Csikszentmihalyi, procrastinator. A break can also produce nega- 1975). Breaks can occur spontaneously when in- tive consequences when it results in a long time dividuals are bored, frustrated, or just in need of span between a person's efforts on a task. When a respite (e.g., individuals take time out to surf breaks are frequent or last for an extended pe- the web, make personal calls, balance their riod, individuals may become less engaged in checkbooks, or visit the water cooler). They can the task they were working on, forget essential also be deliberately incorporated into the work- details of that task, and require a start-up period day. Breaks can be formally scheduled by organ- to become as fully engaged with that task as izational routines (e.g., coffee and lunch breaks) they were when they stopped it. In sum, breaks or can be informally instituted by workers them- can have negative consequences for an individ- selves (Roy, 1960). Furthermore, work prefer- ual to the extent that they result in procrastina- ences can determine the timing and length of tion (i.e., excessive delays in starting or continu- breaks. For instance, some people may schedule ing work on a task) or that significant amounts breaks at regular intervals throughout the day of time are spent relearning essential details of and strive to make steady progress each day, the work being performed (Table 1). whereas others may take breaks at random Despite their potential negative effects, times throughout the day and follow a pattern of breaks can also serve multiple and important seemingly unproductive days punctuated by a positive functions for the person being inter- highly productive day. rupted. The potential positive consequences of In contrast to intrusions, breaks tend to have a breaks include stimulation for the individual positive connotation, because they may serve a who is performing a job that is routine or boring 2003 Jett and George 499 (e.g., Fisher, 1993); opportunities to engage in tigued, and their scores on creativity tests fell activities that are essential to emotional well- dramatically over a period of days (Csikszent- being, job satisfaction, and sustained productiv- mihalyi, 1975: 161). ity (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975; Elsbach, 2001); and Rather than focusing on breaks as recre- time for the subconscious to process complex ational activities, Elsbach (2001) focuses on problems that require creativity (Csikszentmi- breaks as periods of nontaxing work that may halyi & Sawyer, 1995). be needed in jobs that have a relentless pace Some studies have focused on breaks as re- and nonstop demands. "Mindless work" that re- sponses to or preventative measures against fa- quires limited amounts of concentrated atten- tigue and boredom. For instance, studies of data tion and adept social interaction enables a per- entry and computer operators show that workers son's mind to drift regularly to non-task-related who report higher rates of fatigue and boredom thoughts. When interspersed with regular activ- take longer breaks (Henning et aI., 1989)and that ities that are constantly challenging, this mind- workers who stretch physically during short less work produces a rhythm and pace that sup- breaks from data entry tasks perform better than port enhanced job satisfaction and creative those who take breaks with little physical move- thinking (Elsbach, 2001). ment (Henning, Jacques, Kissel, & Sullivan, In the creativity literature, a break from work 1997). Roy's (1960) classic participant observa- is also seen as serving another important func- tion study of a small group of workers putting in tion: providing time for incubation. Some evi- long hours on extremely monotonous and rou- dence indicates that when engaged in certain tine tasks also illustrates the benefits of incor- kinds of work, such as coming up with creative porating deliberate breaks into the workday to ideas or developing original products and pro- alleviate boredom. This group of workers initi- cesses, people often require time for incubation ated regular, frequent, and short interruptions and time to discuss and elaborate their ideas into their workdays, such as "peach time," "ba- with others (Csikszentmihalyi & Sawyer, 1995). nana time," "pickup time," "fish time," and In developing new ideas, organizational mem- "Coke time," to help them tolerate twelve-hour bers need to have the autonomy to work in ac- days of mind-numbing work, to experience a cordance with their own personal rhythms and sense of fun and enjoyment, and to have some- the pace of their tasks, rather than conform to thing on which to focus their attention and punc- standards of persistent effort and steady tuate the day (Roy, 1960). When the breaks were progress. unintentionally disrupted, workdays became al- The concept of incubation explicitly acknowl- most intolerable. edges that attention can be focused in multiple Additional research has addressed the impor- directions and that while engaged in unrelated tance of recreation, idle time, or periods of non- activities, workers may glean insights for a focal taxing work in maintaining emotional well- concern or problem (Leonard & Swapp, 1999). being, job satisfaction, and high levels of work Gaining sudden insights in the shower or on the performance in the long run. For instance, Csik- drive to work may be thought of as cliches, but szentmihalyi (1975) found that chatting with oth- studies of creativity and anecdotal evidence on ers about nonwork activities, engaging in daily the creative process suggest that deliberately sports or exercise, daydreaming, reading for fun, taking time away from work, engaging in an watching television, and other activities that altogether different activity, or ceasing to think might be considered noninstrumental to as- about a task or problem can aid the creative signed tasks are essential to emotional well- process, since the subconscious continues to op- being and creative output. These seemingly un- erate and make connections between seemingly related activities serve as "play" when a person disparate streams of thought (e.g., Csikszentmi- is not currently performing work, and they pro- halyi & Sawyer, 1995; Leonard & Swap, 1999; vide the mental and physical stimulation that Smith, 1995). During incubation, while the con- satisfies needs that may not be met while work- scious mind is idle, the subconscious mind re- ing. In an experiment in which subjects were peatedly attempts to combine elements of an instructed to deprive themselves of activities not idea until it becomes stable and coherent directly related to work responsibilities, the sub- enough to emerge back into consciousness jects reported feeling tense, irritable, and fa- (Csikszentmihalyi & Sawyer, 1995). In sum, a 500 Academy of Management Review July person experiences positive consequences of use it (dial it)" (2000: 241). One form of working breaks to the extent that the breaks serve to memory is phonological-storing linguistic in- alleviate fatigue or distress, initiate a rhythm or formation like words and sounds-and the other pace of work that enhances job satisfaction form is visuospatial-storing analog and spa- or performance, and/or provide opportunities tial information. Cognitive interference occurs for the incubation of ideas on creative tasks when background stimuli or activities draw on (Table I). the same types of working memory resources Breaks connote the significance of time away that are being used in the performance of a from making progress on work activities as a primary task (Gillie & Broadbent, 1989; Hirst & natural and necessary part of performing rou- Kalmar, 1987; Wickens & Hollands, 2000). tine work or preparing for intense engagement Tasks that involve manipulation of words and in challenging tasks. Breaks are events that may symbols are especially vulnerable to interfer- occur spontaneously or may be planned as part ence from human speech, because they compete of a custom or routine. Although taking breaks for the same components of working memory. from a task' does not, on the surface, appear to For instance, listening to other people's conver- contribute to a person's immediate progress, sation or to the lyrics of song is likely to interfere breaks can be beneficial to a person's well- with one's concentration when composing the being, satisfaction, and effectiveness on the job. first draft of a lengthy essay or attempting to This type of interruption emphasizes a holistic solve a complex mcrtherncrticcrl-problem. Alter- view that takes into consideration more diverse natively, if the performance of multiple tasks factors involved in work performance than ac- involves different forms of working memory, the tual time spent on a task. tasks might be time shared more efficiently than if they shared a common phonological or vi suo- spatial form. For example, it might be easier to INTERRUPTIONS AS DISTRACTIONS perform visual and auditory tasks at the same Distractions are psychological reactions trig- time, because they rely on different memory and gere4 by external stimuli or secondary activities processing channels. that interrupt focused concentration on a pri- Another relevant factor pertaining to cogni- mary task. Distractions are generally instigated tive interference is whether a focal task that a by competing activities or environmental stim- person is working on involves information that uli that are irrelevant to the task at hand, and is stored in long-term memory (Edwards & Gron- they affect a person's cognitive processes by lund, 1998; Wickens & Hollands, 2000). To the diverting attention that might otherwise have extent that a person is well versed in performing been directed to that task. Returning to our ex- an activity, information relevant to the perfor- ample, a faculty member attempting to write a mance of that task may be stored in long-term paper in her campus office may experience a memory, leaving a greater amount of working distraction when students are having a loud memory and attention available to respond to conversation in the hall outside her office or pdtential distractions. Consequently, given the when there are other background noises that same objective requirements for a primary task, she finds annoying. a more skilled person is less likely to be dis- rupted by distracting stimuli than a less skilled person. Conversely, when a person is working Perspectives on Distractions on a primary task that is new or unfamiliar, Studies of cognitive interference, which ad- performance of that task relies almost exclu- dress the functioning of memory and attention, sively on working (as opposed to long-term) provide the most definitive statements about memory, and the person may be especially vul- how and when distractions may affect a per- nerable to the effects of distractions. For in- son's concentration while working on a task. stance, experimental subjects who are perform- Cognitive interference is a concept built on the ing unrehearsed word recall tasks are notion of working memory, which Wickens and particularly vulnerable to distractions from pho- Hollands define as "the temporary, attention- nological stimuli that involve similar memory demanding store that we use to retain new in- and processing channels as the primary task formation (like a new phone number) until we (Gillie & Broadbent, 1989). 2003 Jett and George 501 Thus, the same event may be more or less and have a lower threshold for reporting over- distracting, depending on a person's tempera- load than do Type B personalities (i.e., individ- ment and circumstances (including the kind of uals inclined to be more patient and easygoing). task a person is performing). In research on dis- These studies suggest that there is variance in tractions and their consequences, scholars have how individuals respond to potentially inter- explored the extent to which people are dis- rupting events and that some people may be tracted by exogenous circumstances. For exam- more sensitive to the negative consequences of ple, an environment that is noisy because of potentially distracting events than others. loud equipment or proximity to others can be The degree to which a person experiences dis- disruptive to one person's concentration but not ruptive effects from distractions also depends to another's (Oldham et aI., 1991). Similarly, mu- on the characteristics of the task being per- sic can be a potential source of distraction for formed. For example, Speier et a1. (1999) found some people in certain circumstances but, at the that when a primary task is difficult, the intro- same time, can be beneficial to others, helping duction of an interrupting task is likely to dis- to filter out other environmental stimuli and fa- tract a person from the primary task and can cilitating concentration on a focal task (Oldham, produce both an increase in decision-making Cummings, Mischel, Schmidtke, & Zhou, 1995). time and a decrease in decision accuracy. In this We address these issues as we outline the po- study the researchers also found that when peo- tential consequences of distractions when a per- ple were exposed to interrupting activities, they son is working. had more negative perceptions about the work experience, regardless of the extent to which these interruptions affected performance. Distractions: Consequences for the Person Consistent with this reasoning are theories Being Interrupted and research that suggest that motivational in- Distractions divert attention from ongoing terventions (e.g., assigned goals) designed to tasks. They can be viewed as either a nuisance promote self-regulatory activities can become or a pleasant diversion, although in the context distractions that hinder learning and perfor- of an individual who is working on an engaging mance. For example, when a task requires all of task or trying to complete a task quickly, they one's current attentional resources, self-regula- are more likely to be a hindrance. Since a dis- tion will divert attentional resources away from traction can be observed only indirectly (e.g., the task at hand (Kanfer & Ackerman, 1989). For signaled through a facial expression or change instance, when individuals are learning com- in the pace of a work activity), the assumption is plex tasks that require all of their attention, as- that people who experience distractions are less signing them a difficult goal is likely to interfere able to focus or less interested in focusing on an with learning, since some of their attention is immediate task (e.g., Fisher, 1998). diverted away from learning about the task and Whether a person experiences negative or toward thinking about how to achieve the goal. positive consequences from distractions de- In sum, distractions result in negative conse- pends on the characteristics of both the person quences for the person being interrupted when and the task being performed. Some people, re- the work is complex, demanding, and requires ferred to as strong stimulus screeners, are more learning and one's full attention and/or when adept at ignoring low-priority inputs and are the person has particular traits that make him or less easily aroused by environmental stimuli her more vulnerable or sensitive to distractions (Oldham et aI., 1991). Moreover, weak stimulus (e.g., lack of stimulus-screening capabilities or a screeners in unshielded environments have rel- Type A personality; see Table 1). atively low levels of job satisfaction and job Distractions also may have less widely recog- performance compared to strong stimulus nized positive consequences, such as filtering screeners (Oldham et aI., 1991). In a study of environmental nuisances and increasing stimu- police dispatchers who are constantly inter- lation levels on routine tusks: For instance, air- rupted with new messages to process, Kirmeyer craft engine noise, while potentially disruptive (1988) found that Type A personalities (i.e., indi- to an airline passenger, can dampen other, more viduals inclined to be impatient and time con- disruptive noises, such as loud conversations scious) are more sensitive to interrupting tasks and the movement of heavy meal carts down the 502 Academy of Management Review July aisles. An interrupting task or background noise shown to exist in very specific circumstances can also be welcome rather than disruptive that researchers are only recently beginning to when a task is tedious or boring (Oldham et aI., address (Speier et aI., 1999; Zijlstra et aI., 1999). 1995; Zijlstra et aI., 1999). For example, some studies suggest that while the introduction of an INTERRUPTIONS AS DISCREPANCIES interrupting activity can degrade performance of a primary task when that task is complex, the Discrepancies are perceived inconsistencies introduction of an interrupting activity can between one's knowledge and expectations and quicken a person's work pace and information one's immediate observations that are per- processing on primary tasks that are simple and ceived to be relevant to both the task at hand require limited attention (Speier et aI., 1999; and personal well-being. Essentially, discrep- Zijlstra et aI., 1999). ancies occur when an individual perceives sig- The same experiments that have documented nificant inconsistencies between his or her ex- the negative consequences of interrupting activ- pectations and what is happening in the ities when subjects are performing difficult external environment. Discrepancies interrupt tasks have also illustrated that interrupting ac- the automatic processing of task-related infor- tivities can reduce decision-making time for mation and redirect attention to the source of the simple tasks without a loss of decision accuracy inconsistency. (Speier et ol., 1999). Furthermore, Zijlstra et a1. In our extended example, a discrepancy might (1999) found, in a simulated office environment, occur when a colleague tells the faculty member that when skilled subjects are performing work that a recently published article covers much of they find unchallenging, an interruption can ac- the same ground she is focusing on in the paper celerate the processing of that task without nec- she is writing. At the moment this information is essarily affecting the quality of the individuals' received, the faculty member initially feels task-related concentration and output. In sum, a shocked and dismayed and begins to process person may experience positive consequences the meaning and significance of the discrep- from distractions when the distractions filter ancy. In this case the discrepancy arises from nuisance stimuli, thus fostering increased con- the perceived inconsistency between the faculty centration, or when the distractions provide member's perception that she is working on an stimulation for tasks that are routine and un-: original and significant set of ideas and the challenging (Table 1). recently obtained knowledge that some of these Distractions are typically considered dysfunc- ideas might just have been published by an- tional for organizational members, and prescrip- other researcher. The interrupting nature of the tions associated with handling potential dis- perceived discrepancy will have positive conse- tractions normally include sequestering oneself quences for the professor to the extent that she from external stimuli and avoiding unrelated actively and deliberately assesses how her activities and thoughts. When a person has re- working paper overlaps with, and is distinct sponsibilities that entail cognitive activities from, the published article and where there are that require all the individual's attention, dis- areas of differentiation, contradiction, or exten- tractions can produce disruptive effects by inter- sion. An alternative response might be to down- fering with focused concentration (Flynn et nl., play the significance of the discrepancy or deny 1999). In a sense, the disruptive qualities of dis- its existence altogether (George & Jones, 2001). tractions and intrusions are linked, because the Although this alternative response may coin- potential psychological interference of a dis- cide with minimal interruption of ongoing work, traction sometimes results in an unplanned halt it is likely to be ineffective, since an essentially in work and lost time typically associated with unpublishable paper may result. intrusions. Discrepancies occur because the environment Although organizational researchers have produces "demands and situations which are studied distractions, usually in lab experiments, different from what the individual expects" they know relatively more about distractions' (Mandler, 1990: 28). The environment may trigger potential negative consequences than their po- such interruptions, but they are interpreted tential positive consequences. Distractions also through one's own experience. Discrepancies may have beneficial effects, which have been are, by definition, unexpected, and their per- 2003 lett and George 503 sonal relevance produces arousal and emo- theory-driven, and low-effort type of processing, tional reactions (Frijda, 1988; Mandler, 1984, in which new information is dealt with using 1990). Emotional reactions to discrepancies can pre-existing knowledge and associations, rather be positive or negative (Mandler, 1990), depend- than in a careful bottom-up consideration of the ing on the implications of the discrepancies for actual details and facts surrounding a situation personal well-being. Discrepancies underscore (Abelson, 1981; Bobrow & Norman, 1975; Fiske & the fact that while people are inclined to inter- Taylor, 1991; Rumelhart & Ortony, 1977). pret information in ways that are consistent Essentially, once an individual has developed with their expectations or views of the world, a schema for a type of stimulus, whenever he or sometimes contradictory information or events she encounters something that appears to fit the are encountered, causing people to question concept or be related to it, the individual relies their expectations and world views and to ac- on that schema to make sense of and interpret tively process the meaning of the contradictory the new, incoming information. Schemas can be stimulus. The shift to the more active and mind- thought of as people's. simplified theories about ful thinking prompted by perceived discrepan- the way things are and the way the world works cies results in the interruption of automatic or that they use habitually to make sense of incom- less reflective modes of information processing. ing information and ongoing observations Discrepancies can arise spontaneously as in- (Fiske & Taylor, 1991). coming information is perceived and processed. Schemas tend to be resistant to change (Fiske For example, a manager may experience a dis- & Taylor, 1991). Senge warns that "very often, we crepancy when he reads a quarterly sales report are not consciously aware of our mental models that indicates a previously best-selling product or the effects that they have on our behavior" has had a rapid decline in sales; this discrep- (1990: 174). Existing schemas are tacit, they limit ancy engages the manager's attention as he people to familiar ways of thinking and acting searches for potential explanations for the sales (Senge, 1990), and people are often unlikely to shortfall. Discrepancies also can be introduced reflect on their schemas unless they encounter intentionally. For example, a mentor might ac- the unexpected (Schon, 1982). Particularly for of- tively challenge the behavior and expectations ten repeated, well-learned tasks, people become of a mentee to direct the mentee's attention to less likely to reflect on information (Schon, 1982) areas needing personal growth and develop- and tend to process information automatically ment (Langer, 1997; Okhuysen, 2001). Discrepan- (Langer, 1997; Louis & Sutton, 1991; Waller, 1999), cies might also be initiated by a recognized in- falling into a state of "mindlessness" (Langer, congruity between one's expectations and one's 1989a,b, 1997). In a state of mindlessness, people behavior (Argyris ~ Schon, 1974). When viewing are more likely to process information in ways discrepancies in the context of work interrup- that are consistent with familiar interpretations, tions, we focus on the perceived inconsistencies rather than to revisit and actively examine pre- between a person's expectations and his or her existing assumptions. A significant discrepancy task-related observations. may be needed to interrupt the familiar struc- tures and interpretations of experience (Langer, 1989a; Louis & Sutton, 1991; Meyer, 1982; Tyre & Perspectives on Discrepancies Orlikowski, 1994). Researchers have addressed discrepancies Perceived discrepancies and their accompa- most systematically in the literature on cogni- nying emotional reactions (Mandler, 1990) disrupt tive schemas. Schemas are abstract knowledge normal routines by interrupting ongoing cognitive structures that contain organized information processes and behavior and by providing an im- about a kind of stimulus, concept, person, or petus to move from a state of minimal reflection to event; its attributes; and relationships between a state of mindful attention and engagement its attributes (Fiske & Linville, 1980; Fiske & Tay- (Langer 1989b, 1997).According to Langer (1989a,b), lor, 1991; Taylor & Crocker, 1981). Individuals mindfulness is characterized by a high level of develop schemas for concepts or stimuli they awareness and alertness, active and controlled encounter repeatedly, and they use these sche- information processing, and cognitive delinea- mas to facilitate information processing. Use tion. This attentive state provides a window of of schemas results in a relatively top-down, psychological experience in which active engage- 504 Academy of Management Review July ment is triggered and in which reexamination and Discrepancies can have positive conse- possible change in existing schemas can take quences when the emotional reactions to them place. We examine this process as we describe activate mindful or controlled information pro- the potential negative and positive consequences cessing, learning, and adaptation. As relatively of discrepancies. intense feelings or affective states that have a significant impact on ongoing cognitive pro- cesses and behaviors (Simon, 1982), emotions Discrepancies: Consequences for the Person are functional and adaptive signals that focus Being Interrupted people's attention on stimuli relevant to their The consequences of a discrepancy for the well-being, that direct attention to interpreting person being interrupted depend on the nature the cause of the discrepancy, and that help en- and the timing of his or her response to the ergize actions (Frijda, 1988). In terms of Smith discrepancy (e.g., Waller, 1999). Potential nega- and DeCoster's (2000) dual-process model of so- tive consequences might occur when the dis- cial cognition and memory, discrepancies re- crepancy triggers either an extreme and pro- quire people to shift from relatively effortless longed reaction or very little reaction at all. interpretations based on prior associations in Emotional reactions accompany perceived dis- schemas to an effortful process of trying to make crepancies (Mandler, 1990), serving a vital role sense of incoming information, to understand its in alerting individuals to the need to reexamine implications, and to figure out how to proceed their pre-existing expectations and schemas. A (Argyris, Putnam, & Smith, 1985; Argyris & person experiencing a discrepancy may be over- Schon, 1974; Schon, 1982; Senge, 1990). The infor- come with intense emotions that may delay nec- mation-processing activities that emotional re- essary action in response to the discrepancy. actions produce can ultimately lead to a change The person experiencing a discrepancy may in pre-existing schemas and, hence, changes in also suppress or ignore it, delaying a response individual perceptions, interpretations, and be- to the discrepancy indefinitely. havior (George & Jones, 2001). When an individ- Hesitation or mindful reflection is a natural ual responds promptly to discrepancies, he or reaction to the recognition of discrepancies she is interrupting automatic, or mindless, infor- (Schon, 1982). Sometimes organizational mem- mation processing (Langer, 1989a,b; Louis & Sut- bers have hours, days, or weeks to process in- ton, 1991) and initiating active thinking that con- formation in response to discrepancies (Senge, tributes to adaptation and learning (Okhuysen, 1990). Other times, however, individuals or 2001). In summary, perceived discrepancies re- groups are required to respond to discrepancies sult in positive consequences for the person be- in minutes or seconds, because a rapid response ing interrupted to the extent that they lead to is needed for a nonroutine event (Waller, 1999). mindful, effortful, and controlled processing of When organizational members do not respond information; recognition of the need for change; quickly enough to unprecedented events or sit- and stimulation of action (Table 1). uations that produce discrepancies, negative A perceived discrepancy----a form of interrup- consequences are likely to occur. In extreme tion not widely recognized-has the potential to cases, when people are slow to respond or fail to trigger a shift from automatic to mindful pro- recognize discrepancies between unfolding cessing of information that results in task en- events and their own experience, a catastrophic gagement (Langer, 1997)~ It also may trigger a event or loss of life can sometimes occur (Per- row, 1984; Weick, 1993). Such hesitation can re- change in perceptions of task-related activities sult from intense emotions and the inability of that enlivens a fatigued mind (Langer, 1989a). people to control these emotions and switch to Whether the potential consequences of discrep- mindful and active information processing. To ancies are negative or positive depends on the summarize, perceived discrepancies result in particular characteristics and reactions of the negative consequences for the person being in- individual being interrupted. Factors such as terrupted to the extent that he or she has an adeptness at handling unforeseen events, open- intense, paralyzing, negative emotional reac- ness to new experiences, the personal relevance tion, or if he or she suppresses or denies the of events, the stage of personal development, discrepancy and continues to automatically pro- and flexibility/rigidity can affect an individual's cess task-related information (Table 1). response to a perceived discrepancy. Addition- 2003 Iett and George 505 ally, characteristics of the task at hand can play struct provides researchers with fertile ground an important role in this process. For example, for exploring a multitude of important research when an individual is performing a complex questions that address how people behave and and time-dependent task, he or she may have make decisions in work environments. insufficient resources to manage heightened There are a number of important topics for fu- emotional reactions, process information mind- ture theorizing and research. For example, we fully, and take appropriate action. Under these have deliberately focused on the potential conse- circumstances, negative consequences may be quences of a single interruption, given the dearth likely, despite the individual's active engage- of theorizing on this subject. It is likely that com- ment as a result of the perceived discrepancy. plex dynamics arise when one kind of interruption occurs simultaneously, or in close succession, with another type of interruption. For example, an CONCLUSION intrusion by a coworker might lead to a perceived Interruptions occur frequently in organizations, discrepancy if the coworker's queries challenge in a variety of forms, and they are generally per- one's own expectations and assumptions about ceived as detracting from individual effective- the work being performed. The frequency and in- ness. To date, relevant theorizing and research on tensity with which different kinds of interruptions interruptions have been piecemeal and lack a uni- are experienced can also be important factors in fied framework for understanding different kinds predicting consequences. Furthermore, we have of interruptions, their etiology, and their potential focused the paper on the effects of interruptions at negative and positive consequences. Based on re- the individual level of analysis. While the effects views of diverse literature, in this paper we have of interruptions at the individual level are impor- proposed four key types of interruptions: intru- tant, an interesting topic for future research is the sions, breaks, distractions, and discrepancies. consequences of interruptions at higher levels of Each of the four types raises distinct issues and analysis, such as the group and organizational results in different consequences. levels. Research that distinguishes among different We suggest that managing interruptions and types of interruptions has the potential to provide their effects is not simply a matter of exercising multiple benefits for both theorists and practitio- control over their occurrence; organizational mem- ners. For example, empirical studies of the causes bers must also understand the meaning and func- and consequences of different kinds of interrup- tion of different kinds of interruptions. For exam- tions under varying contextual conditions can pro- ple, individuals need to think mindfully about vide organizational scholars with valuable in- when intrusions can and should be dealt with sights on how people work and manage their time (Grove, 1983; Perlow, 1999), to be sensitive to their and productivity. Given the fact that knowledge own idiosyncratic needs for breaks (Csikszentmi- work is on the rise and knowledge workers often halyi, 1975; Roy, 1960) and incubation time (e.g., have discretion in terms of when, where, and how Leonard & Swap, 1999), to manage circumstances they work, it is vital to understand the role that that can distract concentration during peak en- interruptions play in work activities. gagement (Speier et al., 1999; Zijlstra et al., 1999), Studying the four types of interruptions and and to welcome discrepancies that can prevent their consequences in different contexts may the unreflective processing of information and can also guide organizational scholars in conduct- promote adaptation (Langer, 1989a; Louis & Sut- ing research on multitasking and how people ton, 1991; Okhuysen, 2001). simultaneously manage a variety of work- While we identify four key types of interruptions related and personal responsibilities and con- in this paper, there may be additional kinds of cerns. Moreover, an appreciation of the different interruptions, and this, too, is an important topic interruption types and their potential conse- for future theorizing and research. As organization- quences may help members of some occupa- al members and scholarly researchers acknowl- tions, such as academic researchers who must edge and appreciate more fully the multiple kinds balance research with teaching and profes- of interruptions and their potential positive or neg- sional service, alleviate unnecessary' stress ative consequences, it is our hope that they will when they experience interruptions (Cartwright treat interruptions in more discriminating and cre- & Cooper, 1997). Clearly, the interruption con- ative ways. 506 Academy of Management Review July REFERENCES Fiske, S. T., & Taylor, S. E. 1991. Social cognition (2nd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill. Abelson, R. P. 1981. The psychological status of the script Flynn, E. A., Barker, K. N., Gibson, J. T., Pearson, R. 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A., Leonora, A. B., & Krediet, I. 1999. (Eds.), Affect and cognition: The Seventeenth Annual Temporal factors in mental work: Effects of interrupted Carnegie Symposium on Cognition: 333-342. Hillsdale, activities. Journal of Occupational & Organizational NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. Psychology, 72: 163-185. Quintus R. Jett is an assistant professor of management in the Jones Graduate School of Management at Rice University. He received his Ph.D. from Stanford University. His research interests include innovation, organizational change, and strategy processes in uncertain environments. Jennifer M. George is the Mary Gibbs Jones Professor of Management and Professor of Psychology in the Jones Graduate School of Management at Rice University. She received her Ph.D. in management from New York University. Her research interests include affect, mood, and emotion; personality; teams; stress and well-being; and creativity.
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