Do you ever get to the end of a working day only to become frustrated that you were unable to complete any of your work?
Chances are, you may have become distracted or interrupted at some point.
Either from a colleague stopping or sending you a quick message …
… or hearing someone talk about some interesting gossip in the background …
… quickly opening a web browser to check the news or surf the web …
… checking emails and chats …
… or even just wondering what might be on your social media apps at the moment.
You might think that is not a problem, since a interruption is just a quick moment.
Like the blink of an eye, right?
Unfortunately, research is showing us that each time we are distracted, it might take around 23 minutes to regain focus on what we were previously working on.
Some of the most famous research on the subject comes from 2008, where researchers followed workers and timed all of their activities, especially every time they changed what they were working on.
Their research found that on average, workers interrupted themselves by switching activities or applications every 3 minutes and 5 seconds.
And most striking of all is that it took on average 23 minutes and 15 seconds for the worker to focus back on their original task.
The researchers found that most of the time, workers managed to get back on track and complete their task on the same day. However, as they now had less time to complete it, each interruption contributed to higher feelings of time pressure and significantly more stress.
So interrupted people actually worked faster to compensate, but experienced more stress as a result.
This is the problem with “task switching“, which studies have shown means that if you have multiple tasks to complete, it is harder and takes longer to complete them if you are constantly switching between different types of activities and mental states, rather than being able to complete similar sets of tasks all together, due to the costs of switching each time.
Research has shown that responses and work after a task switch are likely to be significantly slower and more likely to have errors.
The impact of switching tasks has also shown to be worse for tasks which are complex and therefore require executive function and rational thinking to complete, which is part of many modern-day knowledge workers.
Other research has also shown that task switching costs increase as we get older, so interruptions may impact more experienced workers than younger counterparts.
Impact on creativity and innovation activities
The challenge here is that our human brains appear to be wired to become distracted and interrupted.
This goes very far back in our evolutionary past, where instantly reacting to hearing a sound which could potentially be a dangerous or deadly predator could be much more valuable than finishing whatever our ancestors were currently doing.
Even medieval monks complained about how distracted they were, and they did not have phones constantly bombarding them with notifications.
In today’s world, with smartphones constantly giving us instant access to millions of hours of content, there is no longer a situation where people ever need to be bored or away from distractions.
And this has led to situations where people hate the idea of being bored or alone in their own thoughts for a while.
In fact, 67% of men would rather give themselves an electric shock than sit still and “just think”.
Task switching and a multitude of small distractions may cumulatively result in there not being enough time to problem-solve complex challenges, and then execute to produce something noteworthy.
So what can you do in order to minimise the impact of task switching:
- Try to limit distractions and the ability for people to interrupt you: E.g. set yourself as unavailable or “away” in chat systems, or turning your phone to flight mode
- Set aside Focus Time in your calendar to get critical work done: ideally for a minimum of 2 hours at a time
- Get clarity on what tasks you want to complete in that time, and what you need to do in order to actually complete them
- Batch similar types of work together and complete them together before moving on to other types of tasks
- Get comfortable with being in your own head, away from distractions and letting your mind wander
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