While distractions may be a welcome source of creativity in some lines of work, most of us need periods of focus to be able to do our jobs to the best of our abilities.
In the social media age, where the potential for distraction has never been greater, this presents quite a challenge for professionals and their organisations. How do you switch off the 'noise' and ensure that you are diverting all your brain power to where it's needed - at the right time?
Neuroscience has some interesting insights that may be able to help answer this question.
Is this your typical work day?
Do you start the working day by checking emails and browsing a few web pages as you settle in for the day? Then, do you leave your email and social media channels open all day while trying to focus on the tasks at hand?
Many of us try to multitask, believing that it is possible to prepare that report for the boss, while chatting to a customer on the phone and messaging back to a friend about dinner plans.
In reality, unless we really can do the task on 'autopilot', like brushing teeth for instance, this is more likely to lead to mistakes, omissions, and possibly messed up dinner plans!
Why? Because the human brain is not able to multi-task. Neuroscience has shown that what we think is multitasking is actually 'switching' rapidly between activities. The brain can only focus on one thing at a time, and so when we juggle tasks, we are really asking our brains to switch frequently between activities. This is not only liable to cause errors; it is also energy-sapping for the brain. So, the more we try to juggle, the less 'fuel' our brains have, and the less likely we are to be successful at ANY of the tasks we are trying to complete.
This is why it's so important to prioritise, manage time, and schedule our activities and breaks through the day.
Managing time and taking proper breaks
When we ask our brains to do more as the tasks pile up, what we may really need is a break, to allow our brains to recharge. That overworked people get stressed and 'burnt out' is no surprise, but few people think about the effects on the brain that help to cause this.
Studies from neuroscience have found that people who take 15-minute breaks every two hours are more productive than those who try to plough on. These breaks should not be reading emails or engaging in more social media; they need to involve 'wandering' of the brain... a short walk, listening to music, or chatting with friends about last night's TV shows.
What we find is that social media or emailing tends to 'feed' the tendency towards short attention spans and constant 'brain shifting' from one task to another. Studies show that, with each interruption presented by a new email or a new chat message (for instance), it can take over 20 minutes to return to the task at hand.
When we return, we may be in a stressed state because the brain has still been switching between tasks rapidly, rather than being allowed to wander.
Social media and the 'always on' communication channels present a great challenge to workplace performance because we always have one eye on the things that are most important to us; increasingly these things are available to us through online activity, so the tendency to self-interrupt is high.
Scheduling times to check emails and social media, and being disciplined about sticking to pre-set periods for these activities, are therefore key to preventing distractions from hijacking our performance at work.