Distractions are easier to find than ever. Our phones ping and buzz with notifications, and owning multiple electronic devices has made multitasking a common occurrence. Distractions plague our work environments and make it difficult to stay on task. However, some distractions can be beneficial when they’re in the form of useful information. For example, a friend striking up a conversation while you’re writing a paper could break your focus, but if that friend knew something about the paper topic they might provide a useful tidbit of information that would help with the assignment. The key to handling such intrusions may be to limit scenarios that seem like time-wasters, but also be open to feedback, since some distractors could benefit your work (Jett & George, 2003).
Although some distractions can be beneficial, most of the time they’re not. We pick up our phones or scroll through social media to purposefully distract ourselves from the task at hand, which limits the time we have to complete our goal, and ends up increasing our stress levels (Jett & George, 2003). Read on to learn three concrete ways to increase concentration and minimize negative distractions. For access to other tools to deal with distraction, download the LIFE Intelligence app, one app to monitor and improve your self, career, and relationships.
Sorqvist, Stenfelt, and Ronnberg (2012) tested how people’s tendency to be distracted by their background environment was affected by the difficulty of the task. These researchers used an n-back test in which participants viewed a sequence of letters and pressed a button when the letter they saw was identical to the one n steps back. So, the task is easy when n=1, since participants decide whether the current letter matches the previous one, but the task gets harder as n goes up in value. The background noise the researchers used was a series of tones, and they recorded whether the participants’ auditory systems responded to those sounds.
When the task was more difficult, fewer neurons in the participants’ brains responded to the background noise compared to when the task was easy. Therefore, higher difficulty makes people concentrate harder, so they focus less on distractions like background noise.
According to this research, we shouldn’t shy away from a challenge. Difficult tasks make us concentrate more, so we may get a harder assignment done more efficiently and be less distracted than with an easier assignment.
The type of distraction we encounter relates to the degree it affects our focus. Gillie & Broadbent (1989) conducted three experiments to study why some interruptions are disruptive while others are not. Participants completed a computer-based adventure game that required memorization. When Gillie & Broadbent (1989) made the interruption similar to the computer task, the distraction was more disruptive. The reason for this finding is that distractions create cognitive interference. The computer task in the study involved memorization and then spitting out that information, which uses our working memory. Working memory is the part of short-term memory that holds a small amount of information temporarily for immediate use. When a distraction is similar to the components we’re holding in working memory, we become more distracted. For example, if we’re writing a report, distractions involving words will be the most distracting.
On the other hand, if we’re doing manual labor and listening to music, the music may not be very distracting, as music notes or song lyrics are not related to lifting heavy objects. Overall, being more conscious about the type of distraction we’re encountering can help us lower our distractibility.
Breaks can be beneficial to our work ethic and overall health. Research has found that breaks can stimulate new ideas, increase productivity and creativity, and reduce stress (Randolph, 2016). However, when these breaks become longer or more frequent, a positive respite from work can turn into procrastination. We lose the components of the task that were held in our working memory if too much time has passed. So, when we start working again, we have to re-learn details of the task which wastes time (Jett & George, 2003).
We need a way to take breaks from work without having them turn into procrastination. One of the methods to do so is to do “mindless work” during break time instead of completely disengaging. “Mindless work” can be homework for an easier class, organizing one’s to-do list, or moving on to a more simple part of the task. Interspersing easier work with a harder task can limit boredom by breaking up the monotony, giving us the positive benefits of breaks while allowing us to still be productive (Elsbach & Hargadon, 2006).
We encounter many distractions every single day, so it’s important to have a tool to remind us how to best deal with distractions to maximize productivity. The LIFE Intelligence self-care app’s 9-step Mission program guides you through mental health, self-awareness, goal setting, regret and time management, decision making, stress management, relationships, conflict resolution, and leadership. The LIFE app has a feature to log your moods during the day, and then manage them with helpful information and strategies. The mood “distracted” covers the four types of interruptions and how to manage each of them. Check out the mood wheel and more when you start LIFE free today.
Elsbach, K. D., & Hargadon, A. B. (2006). Enhancing creativity through ‘mindless’ work: A framework of workday design. Organization Science, 17(4), 470–483. https://pubsonline.informs.org/doi/10.1287/orsc.1060.0193
Gillie, T., & Broadbent, D. E. (1989). What makes interruptions disruptive? A study of length, similarity, and complexity. Psychological Research, 50(4), 243–250. https://psycnet.apa.org/record/1989-38889-001
Jett, Q. R., & George, J. M. (2003). Work interrupted: A closer look at the role of interruptions in organizational life. The Academy of Management Review, 28(3), 494–507. https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2003-06493-012
Randolph, S.A. (2016). The Importance of Employee Breaks. Workplace Health & Safety, 64(7): 344. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/2165079916653416
Sörqvist, P., Stenfelt, S., & Rönnberg, J. (2012). Working Memory Capacity and Visual–Verbal Cognitive Load Modulate Auditory–Sensory Gating in the Brainstem: Toward a Unified View of Attention. J Cogn Neurosci, 24(11): 2147–2154. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22849400/