Work Interrupted A Closer Look at the Role of Interruptions in by yaohongm


									©   Academy of Management Review
2003, Vol. 28, No.3, 494-507.


                                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"
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-
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
                                                     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
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
                                                      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
                                                        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

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                     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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