According to a 2013 study done at Michigan State, 2.8 seconds of interruption spawns a 200% increase in mistakes. Simplistic reactions like ‘Be more careful’ are useless. Learn what I did from exploring the secrets of error prevention and the science of psychology, and get 3 tricks that actually work for media planners, marketers, and human beings everywhere.

Why micro-interruptions are a huge issue for media planners

The 2013 study done by Erik Altman in partnership with the US Navy asked participants to perform a series of tasks in order – such as identifying whether a letter was closer to the beginning or end of the alphabet. When they introduced a 2.8 second interruption, participants made twice as many errors when they returned to their original task.   The real issue for media planners and most marketers is that we CAN’T stop multitasking – specifically because in media planning, there ISN’T just one place to get the work done, or one context to look at.

Media planning is a strategic discipline, and core to revenue generation and customer satisfaction within agencies that focus both on traditional and digital media. But planners are left sifting through hundreds of spreadsheets and multiple interfaces to source and organize information, and manually transferring information from one place to another in order to assemble a plan.

When I started exploring ‘how not to make so many mistakes’, I felt like I had just walked into the Grand Library of Useless Obviousness.  The examples? “Don’t be too tired.” “Eat a good breakfast.” “Try not to be interrupted.” Pretty much impossible when you work in a fast-paced environment, and serve as the epicenter of activity, as most Bionic customers do.

A better way to look at the problem is the concept of ‘human context switching’, combined with Pareto’s law, also known as the 80/20 rule. Google it and you’ll find fifty articles – it boils down to the simple idea that every time you switch what you’re doing, it takes you roughly twice the time to get back to your original task.  Combine that with Pareto’s law, which says that 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes – which is where this actually gets interesting.

Why avoiding micro-interruptions is the key

Let’s go back to the Michigan State study. It isn’t that you have to avoid major interruptions. Nor is that feasible. What you have to actually do is avoid SMALL interruptions while you’re working on detailed tasks – and you have to KNOW what the most dangerous and critical tasks are that you perform.

Here’s how.

1) Build a vault for your most dangerous work


When you’re working on an incredibly detailed task requiring high quality, outline the specific steps for completion, and schedule increments of time for each step. Work only on one component at a time, and only keep the applicable information available in front of you. Configure your windows to be zoomed in as large as possible, ONLY on the information that is applicable to the task at hand.

Get out a sticky note, give the specific task you are doing a name, place it where you can see it, and use the timer on your phone to dedicate a short, but very specific quantity of time to accomplishing it. Don’t move onto the next until you’ve finished it.

Turn off the alerts on your phone and your computer.  Every one of those alerts causes a micro distraction.  You can turn them back on when you are done with your task.

Keep a to-do list handy – you will often think of things you forgot or need to do while working at the task at hand.  To avoid creating a mental distraction (“don’t forget the eggs. Don’t forget to pick up eggs.”), just keep a list by your side.  When these thoughts occur, just write them on the list and then you can forget about it and get back to the task at hand.

2) Make the familiar unfamiliar


So you’ve built a vault, and dedicated a very specific quantity of time to a very specific task. Next up?

Make the familiar unfamiliar – because it will dislodge tunnel vision, and highlight what’s done, what’s not done, and where you might have an error.

How? Change the color and font of your work.

When you’re comparing two pieces of information and putting them together into one component, this gives you the power to visually disambiguate the information.

Don’t go crazy – don’t use ten, but use Calibri and blue for one set of information, and Times New Roman and dark green for the other. You’ll be able to spot the holes in half the time – and if it’s a copy paste job, you won’t lose track of what came from where.

3) Utilize scheduled visitations


Schedule repeat visits to check your work. Don’t stare at it all day. Start your task at one point in the day and complete it. Schedule your repeat visit for the afternoon. Block off a specific chunk of time to check specific components of your work product – and ONLY put the information you need to cross check in front of you.

To err is human.

Above all else, you should strive to understand where things are most likely to go wrong, and to plan for it proactively.

What I’ve learned from our customers is that having consistent processes increases efficiency, which increases quality – which is why many turn to Bionic. What they find is that having ONE place to go for the information they need to assemble a media plan, as well as a central point of reference after the plan is created takes the majority of tedious steps, simply because all the information needed is kept in one place.

I hope my research helps you as much as it has helped me. Do you have any tricks that have worked for you?


Wikipedia – Human Multitasking,

Wikipedia – Pareto Principle, 

Human Error – Theory and Prevention, Dr. Toru Nakata, National Institute of Advanced Science and Technology, Japan

Reducing errors in medicine