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Context switching has been highlighted for the toll it takes on productivity at great length, particularly by people who work in software and project management.

Are there any psychology/neuroscience studies documenting how long it usually takes a person to refocus on a task after someone is interrupted?

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up vote 8 down vote accepted

As part of my PhD within the field of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI), one of the things I am trying to support the user in is multitasking. This might be relevant for you since interruptions and multitasking are highly interlinked. I'll refer you to some of the key papers I encountered during my background research, including some on the effects of interruptions.

You are asking "how long it usually takes a person to refocus". In order to answer that question fully you'd need to define 'refocus' better, but there are some papers on some effects of interruptions.

Multitasking and activities

One of the main referenced papers on multitasking within HCI is “Constant, Constant, Multi-tasking Craziness”: Managing Multiple Working Spheres by Victor M. González and Gloria Mark, 2004. They introduced the concept of 'working spheres' representing higher-level contexts, which "people spend about 12 minutes in [...] before they switch to another". I assume you are interested in the effects on these higher-level context switches, rather than low level tasks as part of these contexts. This is an important first difference to keep in mind when reading up on multitasking/interruptions. Following up on citations of this paper will lead you to a lot of papers which might interest you.

Differences in interruptions

Not all interruptions are alike and not all interruptions are even disruptive. Monk et al. (2008) note "the time to resume task goals after an interruption varied depending on the duration and cognitive demand of interruptions".

Some characteristics that have been observed to affect primary task performance:


  • Duration
  • Cognitive demand
  • Similarity to primary task
  • Complexity
  • Relatedness to primary task

State when interrupted

  • Control over interruption onset
  • Availability of primary task retrieval cues
  • Cognitive load (Bailey, B. P., & Iqbal, S. T., 2008)

For references to the relevant papers and a lengthy discussion see Monk et al., 2008.

Effects of interruptions

Studies concluded that people performed post-interruption tasks more slowly compared to pre-interruption performance. They also found that people made more errors in post-interruption performance. (Kreifeldt, J. G., & McCarthy, M. E., 1981) (Gillie, T., & Broadbent, D., 1989)

However, as Monk et al. also describe in their review there have been contradictory findings. For example, in a more recent paper by Gloria Mark et al., 2008 "people completed interrupted tasks in less time with no difference in quality". They suggest people compensate for interruptions by working faster, at a price: experiencing more stress, higher frustration, time pressure and effort.

More relevant to your question, although described in a lot more detail by Monk et al. (2008) the graphs near the end of the paper show a resumption time of about 1250-1700ms depending on the interruption duration (5-60s).


My intuition (and some contradicting findings) tells me it's hard to generalize these results. I hope by providing this overview you have a broader picture of the scope of interruptions. I suggest you start by looking into Monk C. A. et al.'s paper (2008). It provides a nice overview and reports on the resumption times results mentioned earlier, relating them to memory models which might interest you. If you follow up on citations and find something interesting, please keep us up to date! :)

Again, it is still important to be concrete about what 'resumption times' are. I don't know whether there is an official definition, and rather think it's whatever you decide to measure in your methodology. I've done some experiments myself for my Master's thesis measuring resumption time as the time needed to re-establish the working context needed to execute the task being switched to. Although this sometimes took people around 2s, others were totally overwhelmed with the many resources open due to multitasking and took over a minute.

González, V. M., & Mark, G. (2004, April). Constant, constant, multi-tasking craziness: managing multiple working spheres. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on Human factors in computing systems (pp. 113-120). ACM.
Monk, C. A., Trafton, J. G., & Boehm-Davis, D. A. (2008). The effect of interruption duration and demand on resuming suspended goals. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 14(4), 299.
Gillie, T., & Broadbent, D. (1989). What makes interruptions disruptive? A study of length, similarity, and complexity. Psychological Research, 50(4), 243-250.
Kreifeldt, J. G., & McCarthy, M. E. (1981). Interruption as a test of the user-computer interface.
Bailey, B. P., & Iqbal, S. T. (2008). Understanding changes in mental workload during execution of goal-directed tasks and its application for interruption management. ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction (TOCHI), 14(4), 21.
Mark, G., Gudith, D., & Klocke, U. (2008, April). The cost of interrupted work: more speed and stress. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 107-110). ACM.

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It's great to have so many references to dig into. Thanks! – Ana Dec 5 '13 at 3:05

From the Wall Street Journal:

Office workers are interrupted—or self-interrupt—roughly every three minutes, academic studies have found, with numerous distractions coming in both digital and human forms. Once thrown off track, it can take some 23 minutes for a worker to return to the original task, says Gloria Mark, a professor of informatics at the University of California, Irvine, who studies digital distraction.

Lots of wider reading around interruption science (the name for the aforementioned Gloria Mark's field of study) on Wikipedia. She has lots of papers on multitasking and interruption, but I can't find which one gives the 23 minute figure attributed to her by the WSJ. She also mentions this figure in a Fast Company interview.

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Nice start, but without a reference to where the 23 minutes come from, or what exactly is intended with duration it doesn't fully answer the question yet. Furthermore this is an observed upper limit. – Steven Jeuris Nov 23 '13 at 19:47
I believe this finding is not what the OP is after, or at least not how I interpret it. This probably refers to people being distracted, and doing stuff they didn't intend to work on, whereas the OP's question is about what happens after you do switch back to the original task. – Steven Jeuris Nov 24 '13 at 15:45
Dr. Mark has published the 23-minute figure on page 50 in her new book, Multitasking in the Digital Age, but the Google Books sample here offers no guidance on how she arrived at that figure. Two citations in the previous paragraph (Ophir and Dabbish et al) do not appear to be connected to the claim. – Gary Bridgman Feb 4 at 18:32
@Gary Thank you for the link to the book! I was unaware she published this. – Steven Jeuris Feb 5 at 12:10

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