The Psychology of Interruption

B picWhen I took intro psychology, the professor offered extra credit to students participating as subjects in graduate student projects. Two guys in the grad program took me to a room and set me up with a task, saying they would check back later. I don’t remember the task except that it took some concentration and proved engrossing. Sooner than I expected, they returned and told me to stop the task because they needed to switch it to another. Though a different task, it too required concentration and called for immersion.

However, this task got underway only to have the two grad students came in again sooner than expected. They announced the need to stop the second task because yet another task had popped up as the one needing test results. Once again, the new task—now the third one—was inviting and challenging. However, it too got stopped well short of completion.Choosing_Directions_400W_iStock_000017691121Small_0

Then they explained the script, which was for them to stand out of sight able to observe when I hit a peak of concentration and progress, at which moment they would change the task. Unknown to me, they were studying nonverbal behaviors both during the task and during the briefings when setting up a task. They were looking for measures of frustration that would map into data. Additionally, they wanted data on attitudes of compliance.

It was a relief to learn that they weren’t inept or indecisive. What they did with the data, I never knew. It was enough that they assured me of my helpfulness.

busy-momThis memory brings to mind interruptions that many students at a community college face. Think of the student trying to balance school, job, and family. Homework requires concentration and sustained periods of study, which may have to be budgeted into a day. Yet, it’s not a guarantee that anyone will be out of range from interruptions and redirection.

Part of success is planning times of uninterrupted study. That is a good thing. In addition, it’s helpful to expect that Plan B will come calling at times. The student who expects this and learns to be creative and adaptive to interruptions will move forward with the least amount of energy wasted on fighting a normal part of life.


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