In today’s society, there is a bombardment of stimulus at every turn. A cell phone rings, an email notification dings, social media, text messaging, tv, kids, pets, employees, customers…The demands for our attention are almost limitless. But what we may not realize is how much time, energy and money we are burning every time we turn our attention to something new.
Many researchers are now calling these distractions “Switch Costs,” the cost of switching from one task to another or attempting to multi-task, and these distractions are expensive. The American Psychological Association’s research concludes: “Doing more than one task at a time, especially more than one complex task, takes a toll on productivity.” In fact, it reduces productivity by at least 40%
Multiple studies including one at Carnegie Mellon found that a typical office worker gets only 11 minutes between each interruption, while it takes an average of 25 minutes to return to the original task after an interruption. Which means taking only 15 seconds to check a text message doesn’t actually take 15 seconds. It takes 25 minutes and 15 seconds to get your brain back to the same place it was before the alert.
What’s even worse is that studies have shown that if you are waiting for a message or call it can deplete your brain energy even further rendering you incapable of processing even basic information. Here’s the good news, research has shown that participants can train themselves to ignore and not get sucked into such distractions-but the first step is being aware of where distractions exist and the costs of responding to them.
Your Brain on Distractions:
Your brain is always on and taking in new information, which means it constantly choosing what to pay attention to and what to filter out. Neuroscientists call this ‘selective attention‘, and it comes in 2 different forms:
1. Top-Down (or ‘Voluntary focus’)
Voluntary focus occurs in the Prefrontal Cortex, the part of the brain that does decision making and executive functioning. The top-down focus is goal oriented. It’s responsible for seeing the bigger picture and uses your past experiences to figure things out.
Happens when: You are studying new information or making a decision about something.
2. Bottom-Up (or ‘Stimulus-driven focus’)
Stimulus focus occurs in the Parietal Lobe which is in the cerebral cortex of your brain and is most used for language processing. Stimulus focus occurs when the brain receives some type of stimulus in one of the 5 senses (sight, sound, smell etc).
Happens when: You hear a noise, someone talks to you or a siren blasts off.
Therefore, it’s important to recognize how and where we are learning new information. Russ Poldrack, a neuroscientist at Stanford, found that learning information while multitasking causes the new information to go to the wrong part of the brain. For example, if a student studies and watches TV at the same time, the information from their schoolwork goes into the striatum, a region specialized for storing new procedures and skills rather than saving the new information as “facts and ideas.” Ideally when studying your brain would send information to the hippocampus, where it is organized and categorized in a variety of ways, making it easier to retrieve.
To make matters worse, lots of multitasking requires lots of decision-making and we truly can deplete our mental energy with too many decisions (see my article on decision making here)
Distractions and Switch Costs at Work:
One of the biggest culprits in the workplace which is no surprise, the constant checking of Social Media. Considering that 90% of employees self-reported using Social Media at work and that the average person struggles to go little more than 10 minutes without checking their phone- there is a lot of time lost not only to checking these notifications but the cost of the distractions itself (some studies show that 1 in 10 people check their phones on average once every four minutes!).
Other distractions at work are email alerts, phone calls, meetings and open office plans. These “Switch Costs” and on-going distractions are draining your employee’s focus and ultimately costing your business and your customer’s a lot of money.
When Distractions Can Be Good:
Not all distractions can be bad. In an article by Fast Company they stated “There’s been a lot of research into the psychology of problem-solving that says if you let problems incubate, sometimes it helps in solving them. A good example would be a software developer who just can’t trace a bug so they put it aside and let it incubate. The answer may come back to the software developer later while he or she is working on another task.” This is an example of how switching tasks may be beneficial.
One distinction in this example is the “distraction time” was planned. The research supports being conscious of where you are putting your focus. Getting “pulled away” from a task is much different from taking a deliberate break.
How to “schedule” distractions:
Set aside certain time so the day when you will check your various accounts.
Even better, hire an assistant to scan your emails and only forward through the relevant ones knowing that scanning even something worthless is taking you away from your greater focus. Some professionals go as far as to put an out of office response stating when they can be available online.
“Batch” or “Cluster” your work tasks. The less your brain has to switch between tasks or topics the better. Pick themes for each day or even pick morning or afternoons to focus on one type of event or events similar to each other. For example, Tuesday morning could be “Customer Service” time and Thursday afternoons could be “Accounting and Billables.” In addition to allowing a greater focus, batching can also help you see patterns of both problems and positive trends in your business.
Do ONE thing at a time. Practice this in and out of the office. If you are reading-only read (don’t also text and watch tv). If you are eating only eat. This seems obvious but take note of how often we “multi-task.” The added bonus to doing “one thing” is that is increases mindfulness which contributes to more joy and less stress in addition to increasing productivity!
Turn off notifications. This includes dings and pings for emails, text messages and social media. Use tools on your phone for “do not disturb” (you can still receive calls from certain numbers) and even “night mode” while you’re doing focused work.
What are you going to do this week to cut down on your distractions? Consider how much more money you could make if you had 50% more time each day. Just by doing this one thing of eliminating distractions could increase your focus and output by more than 50%.
Are you going to turn off social media alerts? Turn your phone on do not disturb for certain hours? Hire an assistant to manage your emails? Email us today and tell us what you have tried and what works for you. We’d love to keep the conversation going. Email: [email protected]
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Carrie D. Clarke, J.D. is a lawyer turned business coach and personal strategist. Carrie collaborates with small business owners, high achievers and authors to increase their profits and accomplish goals by focusing on values, applying evidence-based strategies and enhancing their strengths. Carrie is available for speaking engagements, 1:1 coaching and custom workshops.
Originally published at carriedclarke.com