Competition for our attention is at an all-time high. Social media, email, urgent project requests, colleagues who need advice, family tugs, household chores, and the ever-pervasive text messages are all contenders competing for our attention.
Multitasking: not the solution! Research studies on multitasking are numerous. Neuroscience research is very clear: our brain does not conduct tasks simultaneously. In fact, humans merely switch tasks quickly. Each time we switch from hearing music, to writing a text message, to talking to someone, a stop/start process goes on in the brain making us less, not more, competent. The start/stop/start process is rough on us, and rather than saving time it costs time (even very small micro seconds). Multitasking is less efficient, we make more mistakes, and over time it can be energy depleting. -zapping.
How then do we accomplish all that is required of us as efficiently as possible? Dissuading interruptions can help. One study found the average person wastes up to 759 hours per year (the equivalent of one month) on distractions in the workplace. Some distractions are easy to identify. Other distractions, such as psychological barriers, are much more subtle, but can sabotage one’s ability to move forward.
So… How Do We Minimize Distractions to Get Things Done?
Learn to anticipate yourself. According to a study conducted by the University of California Irvine, office workers are only able to focus on any single task for an average of three minutes and five seconds before they’re distracted. And, surprisingly, 44 percent of those distractions are internal – hunger, boredom, stress, sleep deprivation. The good news is that internal distractions are the only kind we can truly control. Know your patterns for hunger, boredom, stress, and sleepiness and plan ahead. Keep snacks at your desk, mix up your to-do list by interspersing boring and interesting tasks, or find a quiet place to take a short refresh.
Send busy signals. If 44 percent of distractions are internal, then 56 percent of distractions come from external sources. People, email, phone calls, and chatter from other cubicles fall into this category. To stop external interruptions before they start, you have to give the right signals to the outside world. Put up your “busy” message on instant messenger. Subtle queues might seem passive-aggressive, but they might also save you from annoying interruptions.
Make technology work for you. Turn off email alerts, set your phone to go straight to voice-mail or create an auto-response to text messages you receive that says something like, “In the middle of something; will get back to you later.” Block chunks of time on your calendar as “busy.” Unless your job involves life-or-death situations, everyone will manage just fine for the few hours when you’re off the grid.
Stop being so darn accommodating. Are you a people-pleaser? Is your favorite line, “I’m… on top of that?” The nicest people are often the busiest people, and when asked if they can help with something… they immediately accept. If you’re already overloaded… Let people know that while you’d love to help, your plate is full. If your unproductive days are starting to win out over your productive ones, it’s time to figure out where your interruptions originate, and put a stop to them.
By being proactive, employing technology, and letting people know, both passively and actively, that you are b-u-s-y, you’ll be interrupted less and enjoy being more productive.
“A person who is interrupted takes 50% longer to accomplish a task.”
– John Medina