A curious, favor-seeking face pops around the cubicle divider to ask a question and interrupt one’s workflow in 1978 — and add to that an avalanche of emails cavalcading into the inbox of 2008 — and then add to that social media push notification chimes and the repeated cellphone ping reminders of incoming texts in 2018.
There is, not simply, a dizzying number of mediums to disrupt each task.
In a survey of 6,000 workers, more than 70 percent reported frequent interruptions in their day, wrote Leadership IQ founder Mark Murphy in 2016. Office workers are interrupted or switch tasks slightly more than every three minutes, wrote Brigid Schulte in a 2015 Washington Post article.
Interruptions are exacting consequences on peoples’ concentration, memory, productivity, creativity, and work satisfaction, say experts. On the other hand, about 50 percent or more of the control for interruptions can be taken back by an individual to lessen the negative effects from all of these chimes, rings, and pings.
An Age of Interruption
Columnist Thomas Friedman spent four days during 2006 in the Amazon rain forest — in a place where the internet wasn’t, and mobile devices were unconnected.
One observation that stood out to him was the entirely focused and detailed attention his Peruvian guide was able to give sounds, colors and shapes along their jungle path. Friedman theorized in his opinion piece for the New York Times that perhaps this concentration was made possible by being apart from the constant interruptions caused by internet and satellites.
“We have gone from the Iron Age to the Industrial Age to the Information Age to the Age of Interruption,” he wrote. “All we do now is interrupt each other or ourselves with instant messages, email, spam or cellphone rings. Who can think or write or innovate under such conditions?”
Several facets of interruption contribute to changing how the brain functions.
Interruptions limit working memory
Our short-term memory can only handle a limited number of tasks.
“We are wired to remember and use the information our eyes and ears receive,” wrote neuropsychologist Kenneth Freundlich, Ph.D. “But our working memory — the mental workspace that retains information long enough for us to manipulate it or use it — can hold fewer than ten items at a time. Being constantly bombarded with far more information than we can process works to the detriment of our memory, our concentration and ultimately our ability to produce timely results and make good decisions.”
He thinks that multitasking reduces how much gets done.
“The brain works best when focusing on a single task,” Freundlich said on MorrisPsych.com. “It takes time for the cognitive processes associated with one task to be turned off and a new set to be turned on. Multitasking only gives us the illusion of productivity. In fact, the more often we switch tasks, the less productive we are.”
Does it take time to refocus?
In a 2013 New York Times article, Bob Sullivan and Hugh Thompson wrote about collaborating with researchers at Carnegie Mellon University’s Human-Computer Interaction Lab to set up an experiment measuring the time required to refocus when interrupted.
“To simulate the pull of an expected cellphone call or email, we had subjects sit in a lab and perform a standard cognitive skill test,” Sullivan and Thompson wrote. “In the experiment, 136 subjects were asked to read a short passage and answer questions about it. There were three groups of subjects; one merely completed the test. The other two were told they ‘might be contacted for further instructions’ at any moment via instant message.”
The first group acted as the control group. During the first test, the second and third groups were interrupted twice. During a second test, only the second group was interrupted, while the third group remained “on high alert” for an interruption that never came.
In the first test, results were below expectations.
“We expected the interrupted group to make some mistakes, but the results were truly dismal, especially for those who think of themselves as multitaskers: during this first test, both interrupted groups answered correctly 20 percent less often than members of the control group,” they wrote.
That would be equivalent to a test score of 80 percent reduced to 62 percent, or failing according to standard academic grading. During the second test, or part two, the results were different and revealed that the study participants adapted to the situation.
“Again, the interrupted group underperformed the control group, but this time they closed the gap significantly, to a respectable 14 percent,” Sullivan and Thompson wrote. “Dr. Peer (psychologist Eyal Peer at Carnegie Mellon) said this suggested that people who experience an interruption, and expect another, can learn to improve how they deal with it. But among the ‘on high alert’ group, there was a twist. Those who were warned of an interruption that never came improved by a whopping 43 percent, and even outperformed the control test takers who were left alone.”
Researchers proposed that the “on high alert” group participants adapted by mustering more brain power to guard against distractions, or that the interruptions served as a deadline that helped them focus more strongly.
Another type of thought process involves making new connections, being creative or innovative.
Interruptions affect creativity
“It not only takes time to switch between tasks, the disruption to our attentiveness and concentration takes a toll on creativity and our ability to see the big picture,” Freundlich wrote on MorrisPsych.com.
Dr. Freundlich offers the following suggestions to manage interruptions and information overload:
- To minimize interruptions, set up times of the day for email and phone calls, and other times for projects that require focus
- Find technological ways to filter and sort information, and pull the content when you need it, instead of having it pushed to you
- Make time to disengage from technology, allowing for a period of reflection to enhance creativity and decision-making
Creativity can be increased by taking mind-wandering breaks
Daniel Levitin, Ph.D., neuroscientist and author of the New York Times bestseller “The Organized Mind,” said that toggling between tasks is handled by a neural switch in the brain, in the insula.
“The problem is as you might imagine when you get a neural switch to switch, it uses up resources, neural resources that are in limited supply,” he said in an RSA Spotlights talk posted on YouTube. “Every time you ask this switch to operate in the insula you’re using up the same neural resources that you would need to solve a problem or to get the energy to stay focused on something to come up with a creative solution to something.”
The brain resources available at any given moment may be used up simply to switch multiple times.
“What we find in workplace studies is that people who will actually focus on a task — unitasking as opposed to multitasking — at the end of the day they feel like they got less done, but by every objective measure, they’ve been more productive — their work has been regarded by others, often their superiors as of higher quality and possessing greater creativity,” Levitin said. “The multitasker thinks they’re being really good at it, but they’re not. It’s one of many neural illusions.”
He suggested that immersing oneself in a project for between 40–60 minutes is optimal.
“We do shift back and forth, but we’re shifting to another mode,” he added.
Levitin calls this mode the creative mode — or the daydreaming, mind-wandering mode.
The mind-wandering mode is a natural state where solutions appear as the brain makes connections between unrelated things, much like what happens in the dream state, Levitin said.
“Getting into the mind-wandering mode helps to push a kind of neural reset button in the brain,” he said. “It replenishes your focused state; allows you to come back to work refreshed with often new insight and the restoration of the neurochemicals that have been depleted by staying on task and by constant switching task to task to task to task. As a kind of rule of thumb, daydreaming could be 15 minutes every two hours. And in workplace studies, people who take these 15-minute breaks — at the end of the day — they’ve gotten more done, they’ve more than compensated for the time they took off. They feel better.”
Balancing interrupted blocks of time with uninterrupted time
Cal Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown University writes extensively about making time at work for periods of focused non-interrupted thinking in his book “Deep Work: Rules For Focused Success In a Distracted World.”
He was a guest on Hidden Brain podcast in 2017. Host Shankar Vedantam asked Newport the practical question of how to ask managers and bosses for uninterrupted time to focus on periods of deep work. He describes deep work as the time focused on one project, without opening and responding to emails, or responding to chat apps — such as Slack — in the middle of a project.
“Something that has seemed to be effective is, in that type of situation, having a conversation with whoever your boss is, whoever supervises you, and say, ‘I want to talk about deep work,’” Newport said in the podcast. “’Here’s what deep work is. And I want to talk about, you know, non-deep work or shallow work, and here’s what that is. And both are important to my job. And I want to have a conversation and decide, what should my ratio be?’ That is, in a typical workweek, what ratio of my hours should be deep work versus shallow work and actually nailing down a number, an aspirational target, that everyone agrees, yeah, this is right for your position in our company. It’s not saying ‘Hey, boss, stop emailing me so much; you annoy me.’”
Turn off notifications
Career coaches recommend turning off automatic notification alerts in order to give the brain time to concentrate.
Small business marketing coach Bernadette Doyle, based in Ireland, advises using the terminology of “processing email” rather than “checking email” for minimizing electronic interruptions.
“Your inbox is not a storage facility or a to-do list,” she said in a video posted on YouTube. “It’s a place to capture and collect incoming items, then process them, so that things that require action get taken care of, the stuff you may need for future reference is safely stored, and everything else gets deleted.”
Doyle suggests setting up specific times to process the email into immediately-handled requests that will take a one- or two-minute response time, and filing other actionable items into folders. Folders represent clearly-labeled holding places for longer answers, review, or waiting for others’ replies. Other folders store information for the future. Unneeded emails may simply be deleted. Then, turn off email windows and inbox notifications while working on other larger or important projects.
“Turn off the automatic delivery,” she said. “And if you have a smart phone, consider turning the incoming email off.”
Handling in-person interruptions
Many interruptions at work are the old-fashioned “Got a minute?” requests to chat or vent.
Business psychologist, speaker and author Sharon Melnick, Ph.D. has posted on YouTube a system for managing in-person interruptions. She said that each individual has 50 percent of the control for an interruption. In the video, she provides an example of what a person can do in their own half of the control when a co-worker stops by or calls to convey the many details of a long story.
“Listen just enough to show respect and get the sense of where they’re going, and then when you’re ready to politely cut it off, simply say this ‘magic bullet’ phrase, ‘How specifically can I be helpful to you?’” Melnick said in the video. “This always works because it makes the other person stop their babbling and actually have to think about and concisely state their purpose for coming to you. Now, if they do say, ‘Well I just need to vent,’ you can say, ‘OK, I have five minutes until I have to leave for my next meeting, I’m all ears,’ and then get up and walk out in five minutes even if you don’t have a meeting to go to.”
She added that one’s response is thoughtful and most likely different in each situation.
Focusing on one idea at a time, a story
When Paul Miller, technology journalist and senior editor for The Verge was 26 years old, he decided to live completely without the internet for one year. He submitted his stories with a thumb drive.
“I just felt like everything was too much, and I couldn’t win,” he said in a TEDx talk. “The Internet kept on coming, there’s more emails. You can’t win against your email inbox, because the moment you’ll hit ‘archive’ on the very last one, you’re going to get a new email.”
He wanted to focus on one idea and one project at a time, and figure out the difference between what he wanted to do and what the internet “wanted him” to do.
Miller found that taking the internet away created a space for boredom that enabled him to clear his mind, a space to be creative, and figure out what he really wanted to do, not the path of least resistance, such as when a person can simply activate their mobile phone and log on.
He learned that his interactions with family and friends were deeper because he focused more on the person with whom he was spending time.
“And what I found is that without the internet I could be with a person in a much more intense and a much more personal way,” he said.
At the end of his experience, Miller found that turning off the internet did not solve all his productivity issues, that he needed to find a balance between using the internet and disconnecting from it at other times.
“I found a balance,” Miller said. “I did something in real life, I told the internet about it. I’m very happy because I just want to make sure that we ask ourselves what is our priority, and that we do that thing and not let the internet tell us differently.”
- “Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive and Creative Self,” book by Manoush Zomorodi
- “The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload,” by Daniel Levitin, Ph.D.
- “5 Easy Steps to End Email Overwhelm — Empty Your Email Inbox,” Bernadette Doyle
- “Success under Stress: Powerful Tools for Staying Calm, Confident, and Productive When the Pressure’s On,” by Sharon Melnick, Ph.D.
- Download the free “Interrupters’ Log Worksheet” from MindTools.com
- “How to establish a media diet: keeping up by slowing down,” by Jihii Jolly in the Columbia Journalism Review
Social media for work — does it affect our reasoning, memory and privacy?