It isn’t easy to minimize interruptions, but there are proven strategies to shut off the outside world, minimize distractions, and produce quality work in less time.
Take a look around you. Is your phone nearby? How about your kids? Is your Slack pinging as you read this? Work in the modern world is filled with distractions, making it hard to focus and get tasks done.
Switching constantly between tasks can lower productivity, increase stress, and even alter the brain.
Read on to learn how interruptions affect your attention and focus, and how to minimize distractions to do deep, focused work.
How an Interruption Impacts Focus
You might think that glancing at that text message from your mom while you’re working won’t throw off your focus, but research shows that a 2-second interruption is enough to lower concentration. The worst part? Recovery time — when you return to the task you had been working on — can take up to 23 minutes.https://www.ics.uci.edu/~gmark/CHI2004.pdf
In a University of California-Irvine study on workplace interruptions, researchers followed 25 workers, including managers, financial analysts, and engineers, at an investment management firm for three days. The study found that the average time a worker spent on a single task, such as talking on the phone or typing an email, before being interrupted or switching to a different task was roughly 3 minutes. The length of time before an interruption when working on an electronic device, like a computer or phone, was even shorter — just 2 minutes and 11 seconds.
What happens in the brain and body?
One of the problems with interruptions is you rarely get a sense of closure on any one task. That leaves you with what behavioral experts call “attention residue” — you rush from one task to the next without fully completing any of them.https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0749597809000399 So even when you think you’re fully focused on the new task, part of your attention is still lingering on the previous task.
This mental juggling act can raise stress levels in the body. In a 2020 study, office workers who experienced more interruptions showed an increase in cortisol, a hormone that helps your body respond to stress.https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0306453020302596 Excess cortisol can lead to all kinds of issues, including difficulty concentrating.
A different study from the same University of California-Irvine researchers found that when workers returned to the interrupted task, they completed the work faster to compensate for lost time. But working more quickly with interruptions came at a cost — workers were more stressed and frustrated, and they felt increased time pressure and had to put in more effort.https://www.ics.uci.edu/~gmark/chi08-mark.pdf
Content switching (also known as “task switching”) is when you switch back-and-forth from working on one task to another. You may have been told that multitasking is a good skill to have, but in reality toggling between different tasks takes a toll on productivity. In one study, participants lost time when task switching, and the more complex the task, the more time they lost.http://websites.umich.edu/~bcalab/documents/RubinsteinMeyerEvans2001.pdf
Switching between tasks could also lower cognitive abilities. A 2015 study found that participants who multitasked showed a drop in IQ equivalent to someone who had stayed up all night.https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/1465496/ Task switching may also cause long term damage to the brain. One study found that people who switched between different forms of media, such as TV, text messaging, social media, and video games, had smaller brain density in areas that govern decision-making and emotions. https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0106698
How to do Deep Focused Work
“Deep work” — a term coined by Georgetown University professor Cal Newporthttps://www.calnewport.com/books/deep-work/ — describes the process of focusing on a mentally challenging task for an uninterrupted stretch of time, with zero distractions. Here are ways to integrate more periods of deep work into your day.
Set up your schedule
- Map out the work day. Before you start work, write down all the important tasks you need to get done that day that require focused attention. Keep the list short — too many items will overwhelm you and you’ll be more likely to open your Instagram than systematically tackle what’s on the list.
- Create a schedule. Look ahead and fill in your schedule for the week. You can choose to use a digital tool like Google Calendar, which allows you to sync your work and personal calendars in one place. By creating a schedule ahead of time, you free your brain up during the workday to focus on the tasks at hand, lowering the risk of context switching.
- Create deep work blocks. Block out time on your schedule for deep work with zero distractions, and honor that time just as you would a meeting or a doctor’s appointment.
- Make time for breaks. When making your schedule, be sure to include time for breaks. Studies show that your brain starts to lose focus and your performance drops the longer you work on a single task.https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/02/110208131529.htm When your concentration drops, you’re more likely to switch tasks. So what’s the ideal work to break ratio? A study by the productivity app DeskTime found that the most productive people using the app worked for 52 minutes, then took a 17-minute break.https://desktime.com/blog/17-52-ratio-most-productive-people/
Distractible? Targeted supplements may help. Take this quiz to find your specific get-things-done formula.
Set up your environment
- Use digital tools to manage distractions. Download an app that blocks distracting sites and apps so you can get your work done. FocusMe allows you to block certain websites for a set period of time, while Freedom locks up the entire internet for up to 8 hours. And a simple but highly effective hack — turn your phone off or put it on airplane mode.
- Find a quiet place to work. The COVID-19 pandemic has blurred the lines between work and home, and many of us have been forced to share our work spaces with our partners and kids. If your work setup is currently the dining room table, try finding a private spot where you can work uninterrupted, even for short bursts of time. If you’re short on space, consider purchasing a closet desk and sprucing up a rarely-used closet in your house.
- Remove clutter. Declutter your workspace and the surrounding area. A 2011 study by the Princeton University Neuroscience Institute found that clutter can make it harder for the brain to focus and process information.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3072218/ Make sure every item and piece of stationery has a place — when you know where the pens and paper go, cleaning up is a cinch. Get inspired with these tips from professional home organizers.
- Close those tabs. Digital clutter matters too. Take a look at the top of your browser — how many tabs have you got open? If you’re like most people, you have at least 10-20 tabs open at any one time. Research shows that “heavy media multitasking” — including keeping dozens of tabs open at a time — taxes the brain, leading to a decrease in attention and reasoning skills.https://www.pnas.org/content/115/40/9889
Plan For an Interruption
Open-plan offices are the norm nowadays, particularly in the technology sector. Tech giants like Facebook, Google, and Microsoft have done away with physical walls in favor of large open spaces. The thinking goes that these spaces increase collaboration and sharing of ideas among colleagues, leading to increased innovation. There are downsides, however. Research shows open plan offices can lower productivity, decrease concentration levels, and lead to less employee satisfaction.https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rstb.2017.0239https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.02178/full
To better manage interruptions from colleagues, whether in-person or electronically, create a “ready-to-resume plan” — taking a moment to pause and plan how you will return to the interrupted task before moving away from it. If a colleague stops by your desk unannounced, for example, don’t be shy to ask them to wait a moment. This process can take under a minute — you simply jot down where in the task you were pausing, and what you will focus on when you return to it.https://pubsonline.informs.org/doi/abs/10.1287/orsc.2017.1184 If you feel uncomfortable asking a colleague to wait before interrupting, clearly communicate that doing so will allow you to give them your full attention — that should dissolve any tension.