When interrupted at work, how long would you say it takes to return to a state of focused attention? A moment or two? 10 minutes? Try 23 minutes and 15 seconds! If you’re skeptical, Gloria Mark, a professor at UC-Irvine, begs to differ.
Most people will take on additional, unrelated work tasks (like checking their smartphones) before getting back on track. And before they realize it, where has the time gone?
Pros and Cons
For the many ways smartphones are designed to make life more convenient, new studies illuminate the downside to the devices. In fact, the very ability to quickly switch back and forth between various tasks negatively affects productivity.
One can hardly make their way through a job interview these days without being asked about multitasking.
It seems employers want people who can balance a variety of responsibilities at any given time. The problem, however, lies with our inability to focus on a given task and devote the necessary energies to quality output. According to Daniel Levitin, professor of behavioral neuroscience at McGill University, “(t)hat switching comes with a biological cost that ends up making us feel tired much more quickly than if we sustain attention on one thing.”
What’s more, the added techniques required to power through demanding stretches of work often come at a cost. When we use, say, caffeine, to boost energy, the brain does not react positively. As a substitute for rest, caffeine, or any other synthetic tactic just falls short.
The Up Side
Interestingly, taking 15-minute breaks every couple of hours leads to more productive work. And it’s in how these breaks are made that maximum impact is achieved. Surfing one’s various social media accounts yields less positive results than, say, taking a walk, reading, daydreaming, etc. These activities, even in brief quarter hour spurts, are sustained and have a way of transporting the mind to a different, more restful place.
Now, there are certain activities where multitasking is okay. Whenever you are doing something that doesn’t require active concentration (laundry for example), then reading a book or talking on the phone has virtually no undesirable consequences.
Whatever your profession, understanding how the mind works can be a valuable tool in being your very best. The more distractions are eliminated, the greater the chance for productive and quality work to be the result.
Set aside some time and reflect on how your work practices impact your workday. If you find that avoidable interruptions have taken over, set some boundaries and make the change!