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Holiday Time and the Mobile Phone

Do digital interruptions make your holiday feel longer or shorter?

Key points

  • Most people typically get some communications each day on their device.
  • The traditional view is that interruptions make ongoing activities seem to take longer.
  • Whether digital interruptions are good or bad depends on their nature and on how well the holiday is going.

As the summer holiday season winds down, if people have been lucky enough to be able to get a break, they will return to their everyday lives. The literature suggests that a good holiday from the everyday increases feelings of motivation and well-being. However, this may be somewhat dependent on the holiday being satisfactory to the individual and on it going as well as they hoped. Of course, some factors impacting the holiday experience are, to greater or lesser extents, beyond people’s control—like the weather, the company, and the journey.

However, one aspect of the holiday more under control is the mobile digital device. The question is, whether the digital device should be taken along for the break, or not, will it enhance or detract from the experience? Science suggests that a straightforward answer is not going to be easy, but there are indications of when, and how, the device will impact your holiday. Two areas of interest are whether your holiday will feel longer or shorter, and better or worse, with a digital device in your pocket.

Mobile devices on holiday create a great deal of controversy. Some people claim they are better left at home—nasty little things that remind you of everything you were trying to get away from and that keep dragging you back to the mundane. Others, equally adamantly, say that a holiday isn’t complete without a selfie to capture the experience, and a quick glance at the map to get you to that new restaurant you wanted to try. This can all be debated and, doubtless, there are many different views.

One thing most people will agree on is that, if the digital device does start to suck you back to the everyday, either through a quick look at work email or through worrying about your image as you post that holiday selfie, then things will go "pear shaped." Most of these problems can be overcome with a bit of self-control, but what of the possibility of interruptions from your digital device? Interrupting an ongoing activity can impact one's perception of that activity’s generated effect and length in rather complicated ways, and both quality and duration are important for a good holiday.

A quick survey suggests that both the United Kingdom and the United States have a lot of digital traffic, affording many potential interruptions to your holiday, should the device accompany you. Most people typically get some communications each day on their device. For example, 75 percent of people send at least one text-type message per day, and 55 percent will send more than one such message.1 On average, a person will get around 100 e-mails per day (mostly junk advertising), but they tend to send around 40 emails a day for work and social purposes (probably less for the latter purposes, these days).2 In terms of speaking to people over the phone, around 70 percent of people get at least one telephone call a day, and 30 percent get more than five calls a day.3 Without taking some action to stop the flow, that amounts to a lot of interruptions, especially as about 80 percent of people do not turn their mobile device off.1

Perception of Time

A question is, how do digital interruptions impact perceptions of holidays—do they break it up, make it seem longer or shorter, or better or worse? The traditional view, derived from the psychological laboratory, is that interruptions make ongoing activities seem to take longer—two halves, viewed in retrospect, seem longer than a continuous whole of the same duration. The classic demonstration of this effect occurred nearly 100 years ago when Zeigarnik found interruption of a task made it seem longer. People completed 10 anagrams continuously, or 20 anagrams with an interruption after 10. The latter group perceived the first 10 anagrams to take longer than the first group. This effect has since been replicated several times, and it is generally thought that people who are interrupted when doing something overestimate the time taken.4

These laboratory findings imply that the activity being interrupted is somehow a task to be got through, and the completion of that task is the thing to be aimed for. Anything that breaks up the possibility of completion is a bad thing and makes the time taken seem to be longer in retrospect. Yet, the applicability of these traditional findings to mobile interruptions of holidays may be dubious. Ideally, holidays are neither to be worked through nor seen as aversive (unless they have gone really bad!).

Nature of the Interruption and of What's Being Interrupted

This brings up the possibility that it is not just the interruption that is important in impacting time perception but that the nature of the thing that is being interrupted is also important. In an experiment studying the effect of text interruptions on work, the receptiveness to the interruption (how it was perceived), depended not so much on its timing but on its content relative to what was being interrupted. If the content was interesting, entertaining, and relevant for the person, then it was perceived positively.5 These findings again relate to the workplace, and holidays may be different in one important way. It may take relatively little for an interruption to be seen as entertaining, set against the backdrop of work, but significantly more when set against a holiday. The thing interrupted will impact the interruption, as well as vice versa.

If a bad thing is broken up, then the time spent on it may seem shorter—as has been demonstrated for pigeons waiting for food; interrupting their aversive wait makes that wait seem shorter.6 In fact, affective reactions to interruptions vary widely depending on many subjective factors.7 These include the perceived timeworthiness, timing, and duration of the interruption. The degree to which the task being interrupted was perceived as positive also plays a major role in the emotional reaction to the interruption. A similar conclusion was arrived at in another study that found interruptions by online messages predicted negative affect when the person is under time pressure, but perceived interruptions predicted positive affect when the person is responsive and happy to have the interruption.8

All in all, a digital interruption is, in itself, neither a good nor a bad thing for your holiday. It will depend on the nature of the interruption and how well the holiday is going.


1. Statistica (2019). How often, if at all, do you use your mobile phone to send or receive text messages? how many digital messages do we get a day - Search (

2. EarthWeb (2023). How many emails does the average person receive per day in 2023?

3. Statistica (2022). Mobile phone use: Frequency of making voice calls. Mobile phone use: frequency of making voice calls | Statista

4. Schiffman, N. & Greist-Bousquet, S. (1992). The effect of task interruption and closure on perceived duration. Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society, 30(1), 9–11.

5. Fischer, J.E., Yee, N., Bellotti, V., Good, N., Benford, S., & Greenhalgh, C. (2010). Effects of content and time of delivery on receptivity to mobile interruptions. In Proceedings of the 12th International Conference on Human Computer Interaction with Mobile Devices and Services (pp. 103–112).

6. Reilly, S., & Schachtman, T.R. (1987). The effects of ITI fillers in autoshaping. Learning and Motivation, 18(2), 202–219.

7. Feldman, E., & Greenway, D. (2021). It’s a matter of time: The role of temporal perceptions in emotional experiences of work interruptions. Group & Organization Management, 46(1), 70–104.

8. Sonnentag, S., Reinecke, L., Mata, J., & Vorderer, P. (2018). Feeling interrupted—Being responsive: How online messages relate to affect at work. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 39(3), 369–383.

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