Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

Does Helping Others Hurt Your Creativity? The Cost of Interruption

You’ve come into the office ready to go – it’s going to be a productive day. You’re finally going to make some headway on that overdue blog post, or perhaps it’s a new design layout, or a complex spreadsheet. Yet, as soon as you find your focus, a colleague wheels over a chair and interrupts your flow, asking for help. Sound like a familiar frustration?

That’s the cost of modern open-plan offices – communication between workers is free and easy, but there’s also infinite opportunity for distraction. Perhaps you’ve fantasised about taking over your boss’s private cubicle, or maybe just pressing a mute button on the entire office. Just an hour or two of undisturbed peace.

Time-management gurus often champion the idea of specified office quiet hours. In a collaborative work environment, banning help-seeking interruptions entirely would be too drastic. But set aside periods for colleagues to seek help from each other and other periods for quiet working and you have the best of both worlds. The logic appears sound. Yet in a recent paper published in the journal Applied Psychology, researchers in Germany and Switzerland report that periods of quiet time actually harmed the performance of help-seekers and help-givers.

Time-management gurus often champion the idea of specified office quiet hours.

Philipp Käser of the University of Zurich, with colleagues Urs Fischbacher and Cornelius König, recruited 168 undergrads and formed them into 84 pairs of help-givers and help-seekers. Each partner in a pair watched one of two 20-minute movies, and their partner watched the other. Afterwards, each participant sat alone at a computer and had 30-minutes to answer as many questions as possible about both movies. Questions about the movie they’d seen were intended to be easy to answer from memory. Questions about the unseen movie were trickier and involved looking up information online. All the participants were incentivized with cash rewards and “help-givers” also received extra payment based on their partner’s performance (ensuring they were motivated to help).

In one condition, designed to simulate a typical relaxed open-plan office, the “help-seekers” in each pair could interrupt their partner anyim time they liked via an on-screen interface. So, rather than trawling through the script for information about the movie they hadn’t seen, they could instant message a query to their partner. In turn, he or she had no choice but to stop what they were doing and type an answer to the question. You might think this arrangement would have saved the help-seekers a lot of time, and without too much trouble for the help-givers.

In fact, the first surprising finding of the study was that overall, pairs performed no better when help-seeking was allowed compared with a control condition in which it was forbidden (akin to a strict office where everyone’s focused on their own work with no interruptions allowed). The performance cost of interruptions was greater than expected, and the researchers said the overall benefits of helping may have been overestimated in past research.

In one condition, designed to simulate a relaxed open-plan office, the “help-seekers” in each pair could interrupt their partner any time they liked.

Another condition was designed to simulate an office that uses a quiet hours policy. In this case, the help-givers in each pair could allocate, on a minute-by-minute basis, half the time as quiet time, during which they couldn’t be disturbed. This would obviously have been a hindrance for help-seekers, but it handed some control to help-givers, allowing them to complete all their trickier questions during quiet time, leaving the easy questions for when interruptions were likely. But here was the study’s most surprising finding – both help-seekers and help-givers performed worse under conditions in which the help-givers were able to choose undisturbed periods, compared with anytime help-seeking.

Zooming in on their participants’ behavior, Käser and his colleagues found that help-givers particularly suffered when they kept alternating between quiet time and helping time. It’s as if they got so bogged down with structuring the different time periods that they got distracted from their work. By contrast, help-givers who allocated their quiet time into fewer, longer stretches fared better.

So what are the lessons for real-life working? 

Of course every office situation is different and we must be cautious about extrapolating too literally from a lab study. That said, these results suggest it pays to think about the kind of conditions under which anytime help-seeking might be preferable to having controlled quiet times, or vice versa.

If you’re in an office where there is a large discrepancy in expertise or knowledge between staff, then allowing help-seeking and interruptions at anytime is likely to be highly beneficial, especially if a couple of minutes sacrifice from one team member will save hours or more for the person making the inquiry.

If there is a large discrepancy in expertise or knowledge between staff, then allowing interruptions at anytime is likely to be highly beneficial.

But even in such situations, this study shows interruptions shouldn’t be made lightly. Given the often high costs of being disturbed, the implication is that while remaining open to interruption is largely beneficial for collaborative teams, we should also encourage a culture in which people think twice before seeking help – first asking themselves if they can solve the query alone.

The policy of specified quiet hours may seem like an appealing compromise, but this study also showed that office quiet hours are no panacea. Käser’s participants only derived a benefit from decent stretches of quiet time. So consider a day or a half-day as compared to 1-2 hours. If the “quiet time” blocks are too short, the cost of shifting mental modes becomes a distraction in itself.

Lastly, we shouldn’t assume that staff will know intuitively how to make the most of quiet hours. Käser and his colleagues thought that help-givers would use quiet time to tackle harder questions, but most of them didn’t use their time strategically in this way. So if quiet hours are introduced in your office, it’s worth planning how you might make the most of them; or if you’re a manager, consider sharing some strategic pointers.

What’s Your Experience?

Do you set “quiet hours” at your office? How do you handle interruptions?

More insights on: Collaboration, Office Dynamics

Christian Jarrett

more posts →
Dr. Christian Jarrett seeks out exciting new research and showcases its relevance for life. A psychologist turned writer, he’s editor of the British Psychological Society's Research Digest blogcontributor to New York, author of The Rough Guide to Psychology and Great Myths of the Brain. On Twitter @Psych_Writer.
load comments (25)

    Especially in open office environments where there are no doors, interruptions happen very often. I don’t think setting a specific time block for quiet hours would work though, since everyone has different schedules and their own time of day in which they are most productive.

    In the book Studio Culture by Unit Editions (… ), I remember reading about one firm that had little flags by their desk. If the flag was at a certain position, that person would be available to accept interruptions. If the flag was at another position, it meant they were focused and preferred to be left alone. A small tool like this could go a long way in communicating everyone’s availability without a great disturbance.

  • Lona Jane Skaggs

    Some work better when interrupted; the brain will (in some) remain working on the creative project; for others>no, it will make the brain reorganise and categorize; depends on the wiring of the brain and the health and nature of that individual. Need documentaion for this inquire, I do research.

  • K-eM

    We implemented a “work off site” day here. So every Thursday, anyone who needs to focus to get things done can use Thursday to work from home or some other location. It was hard at first since we’re a very collaborative team, but after 2 or 3 weeks we got into the rhythm of it. We also have an empty office that gets used when someone needs a little quiet time to focus during the rest of the week. They just go in and shut the door. There is a window so we can see they’re in there and we can interrupt if we absolutely have to, but we all do our best to respect the need for focus. It works really well and the people who use it are usually only in there for a couple of hours or so.

  • James Duff

    I’m an IT admin in a high school, as well as being a teacher. I’m constantly being interrupted by ‘just a quick question’. This has had a huge impact on my productivity, as can be compared when I come in on weekends when there’s no one else here!
    Unfortunately, I can’t have set quiet times though, as due to the structured nature of a high school, there is often only an hour every day or two that a teacher could come and see me, and its different for every teacher.

  • Raymond D Murphy

    Of course everybody have different natural states of engagement but generally I try to get as much uninterrupted work done as possible up to 1-2pm from an early time in the morning. Here I challenge my most difficult or deeply creative work. After that it’s a downhill slope of energy and I keep the afternoon for action-oriented meetings, collaborative efforts, and admin jobs. The only things that upset this are when I’m tired on a Friday and even in the morning I can’t concentrate on the hard work, or when a meeting requires a more social slant. That way the morning is much better.
    Then again all these office strategies are often lost in the Japanese environment, where i work, when so many are simply flapping around pretending to work only to give the image of long hours, and therefore hard work.

  • Eric

    This is hands down my biggest problem at work. I’m the System Administrator and the only Tech Support for a 100 employee company. If I have a slow day, it’s amazing how much I get accomplished, but most days i get nothing done because of so many small interruptions. A quiet hour or two per day for me would go a long way!

  • Ross McCord

    When I really need a chunk of uninterrupted time, I take it. And if people need help, I tell them they need to wait. Overall the constant interruptions – whether from emails, phone calls or coworkers can often obliterate my productivity, I find it can also be a good way to reset and refocus on a current project.

  • Jim Dominic

    Often I work after hours on projects for which I need uninterrupted time. At our office there is no other way, and the interruptions are often almost a constant stream. Many interruptions would be unnecessary if some people would take a bit of time to think through what they want and solve the problem themselves, but it is easier and faster to interrupt someone else. Even so, that wouldn’t be such a problem if some people did not also want to have long-winded conversations about what they wanted. Please just ask the question, let me answer, and we can both get back to work. I don’t need the history, I don’t need to have things read to me (with your finger pointing at the words), and I won’t even try to soothe your free-floating angst over this trivial thing that baffles you.


    I lead a small, part-time team where there are no quite times as such. While I have plenty of time in the office alone, if I am interrupted at a crucial point in my focus, unless it’s time-crucial I simply ask the help- seeker to come back in a specified time, or say I’ll go to them when I’m finished. It seems to work for us.

  • Marisa Peacock

    While having an open-door policy can sometimes slow one’s productivity, in my experience it has helped me bring different perspectives into my work. I learn from the way people ask questions, especially if they are layperson in an area in which I have more experience. User experience is about designing systems and interfaces in a way that makes most sense from a user’s perspective but satisfies the goals of the designer. Sometimes if I am confronted with the same question over and over, it has helped be approach a situation from a different perspective. I may think it’s a simple solution, but if people have the same issues over and over, it’s a design flaw and needs to be addressed. I think as long as you establish firm, but friendly boundaries, you can benefit from the interaction, without compromising your time.

  • Lewis Jones

    I’m only a student at the moment so I don’t have the experience of being in an industry environment. Not to sound big headed but quite a few of my fellow students aren’t as experienced with creative software as I am so regularly I am asked by them to help out. Often I’m happy to help but it does become very annoying throughout the course of a 2 hours lesson where every 10 minutes I’m having to take out my earphones, stop concentrating and walk over to look at somebody elses work. I would definitely prefer if they googled what they wanted to know, because they could probably find what they were looking for 75% of the time.

  • Jamal Nichols

    Creative work requires uninterrupted focus. I thought that was common knowledge by now.

  • Jamal Nichols

    I actually have a blog post written on this, but it isn’t scheduled to be released until Aug 15th, and I don’t want to mess up my rhythm :)

  • Alex Vallejo

    we should also encourage a culture in which people think twice before seeking help – first asking themselves if they can solve the query alone.

    I live by this and I’ll say that if someone on my team knows the answer than it is a waste for me to dig through google to find it. As long as we set a time every week to reach out to out own pool of knowledge than I think it’s ok. Not the situation tho for many corporate jobs.

  • steph seen

    Totally agree. I’m a graphic designer/front end web developer. One day I counted how many times I was interrupted before lunch…lets just say I lost count at around 6. I support multiple divisions in this office and being interrupted multiple times is probably the most annoying thing any creative person can encounter throughout the day. It not only stops your flow of work but you end up NOT completing a damn thing because of it…and guess who gets the blame? YOU.

    If I could just have 3 hours of uninterrupted time a day I’d be a happy lil designer…opps gotta go, interrupted again! :/

  • Willow Marketing

    We’ve implemented “groove time” to our work day, which exists between 10am and 3pm. With this groove time, we have encouraged employees to attempt to schedule any meetings, chats, etc. to occur before 10am or after 3pm. We also have what is called a “Quickie” meeting at 8:43am every morning. At this meeting, each staff member shares their needs for the day and week. Each person has the floor for 2 minutes or less to share any upcoming deadlines that require projects to be delivered to them, if they need to chat with another employee about a project, etc. Once everyone has shared their needs, we can then break off into side conversations that go into further detail about what is needed. Implementing these two enhancements to our process has really improved our quality of work and communication. Of course, some of those interrupter meetings do occur, but we are all much more aware of respecting each employee’s time.

  • Shannon Abitbol

    I knew I wasn’t the only one! Interruptions really interfere with my creative juices.

  • Jay Wong

    Ditto, it frustrates me when you realize they can perfectly answer their own questions, if they questions themselves logically, very often I have to help break down their thought process and it is very tiring.

  • Adam

    I work as a Motion Graphics Artist contractor in a bay every day with different editors, producers, clients, account executives, executive producers, and post production managers coming in and out all day. Sometimes coming to ask me questions about a show I’m not working on yet, sometimes taking conference calls, and the cardinal sin- watching over my shoulder and commenting on my work before I am done. Headphones don’t help as far as warding off interruptions. As far as productivity, focus and creativity go- it is a nightmare.

  • Alex Butler

    Really interesting article – thank you.
    We are a community of diverse freelancers and independents called KindredHQ ( We run pop-up coworking events in London and often find that it is when there is a conversational buzz in the room that we are at our most productive and creative. The odd time when everyone has their head down you almost feel under pressure!
    I think that interruptions are critical to the creative process and that is why coworking for freelancers has become so popular.

  • Maria

    I’m a freelancer, so the office atmosphere isn’t so much of an issue for me. BUT I have a girlfriend who aspired to freelancing and I got in the habit of having lengthy email conversations with her about her insecurities, not knowing the next step to take, giving advice that didn’t get taken, b/c although she asked for help, what she was really looking for was a distraction and an ego boost to fuel her hopes and dreams — not actions. My point: Yes, helping others completely has the power to mess up YOUR game. I finally had to cut the convos off and was amazed at how my own motivation and self confidence were restored. My advice: if someone needs your “help” and you feel compelled to give it to them, schedule a time to do so and make it clear that random interruptions are not the way to go to get it. You’ll save yourself so much time taking out a few hours rather than letting people dig away at you over a long period of time with “quick” questions.

  • Sari Delmar

    Im my office I have set question times and encourage my staff to bring their questions in bundles nicely packaged after they have thought about whether they can find the answers themselves. Of course they can interrupt outside of Question times if its urgent/exciting but I was having a hard time blasting through my work with questions coming every 5 minutes. If someone has a tight deadline to meet we also have them announce to the team they are going in a “Cone of silence” and they put headphones on. Everyone will know not to interrupt them at that time. This works well for most of our team as there is enough work to carry them between question times.

  • Sari Delmar

    I also work a lot and think a lot about how to answer the staffs questions before they have to ask them, giving them all the tools and references for a task when it’s assigned so there’s less chance of interruption

  • Jen

    Thank you for writing this article. I hope everyone in the world reads it. I had to leave a job I really liked after about 8 years because I could no longer deal with the constant barrage of interruptions. A typical scenario that unfolded frequently went like this: I would have a person in my office, we would be having a meeting. During this meeting a person would send me an email and if I didn’t respond they would instant message me, when I didn’t respond they would then call my cell and leave a voice mail, then they would then call my office phone and leave a voice mail and then my favorite part would happen: they would then storm into my office demanding to know why I had not responded to their messages within 10 minutes, they would then turn beet red with embarrassement to discover I was in a face to face meeting. I was lucky enough to find a job where this is not a problem but it amazes me how I see this same insane behavior from friends and family members, it reminds me of babies throwing tantrums for attention.

  • Msowor

    Great insights, thanks a lot!

blog comments powered by Disqus

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,144 other followers