Back in 2012, I wrote a blog post titled, “Do One Thing At A Time” talking about how we are much more efficient if we focus on one thing at a time and too many people keep themselves in an environment filled with distractions which gives the false impression that they’re productive just because they’re busy.
And now, five years since that blog post, I just heard this podcast episode called Spring Cleaning for the Mind that gives a lot of fresh info on exactly this topic. I will summarize/transcribe the most important parts of it so you could save 20 minutes.
How to deal with the crush of information you face each day?
There is so much to keep up with. It’s exhausting, confusing and overwhelming keeping up these days. There’s politics, social media, youtube, reddit and everything else on the internet constantly coming at you.
Recently, 30,000-people participated in a program aimed at fighting their information overload and the single behavior change that worked the best, the one people most wanted to keep up with and the one that was the toughest was SINGLE-TASKING.
What does the research say about single-tasking and why it works?
First, understand that multi-tasking is a myth. You can’t do multiple things at once. Even when you think you’re doing multiple things at a time, you’re actually just switching from one task to another, so you’re still only doing one thing at a time. And it turns out, switching comes with a price.
Shifting your attention carries a price
Neuroscientist Dr. Daniel Levitin says, “Everytime you shift your attention from one thing to another, your brain needs to engage a neurochemical switch that uses up resources to accomplish that. So if you need to multitask, you’re not actually doing 4-5 things at once, because the brain doesn’t work that way. Instead you’re rapidly shifting from one thing to the next, depleting neural resources as you go.”
Task-shifting isn’t a new phenomena, but it has intensified significantly over the years
Professor of Informatics at UC Irvine Gloria Mark says, “About 10 years ago we found that people switched between their online and offline activities every 3 minutes. But now we’re looking at more recent data and people are switching every 45 seconds and in general, there is a continual shifting of attention throughout the day.”
Exactly how long does it take someone to get back on track if they are interrupted?
Researchers answered this question by monitoring participants in multiple ways: monitoring phone activity, wearing small lightweight cameras with face detection that took continual photos, heart rate monitors, monitoring sleep and notifications that would pop up on the phone that ask things like, “How focused are you right now?” (Antraniks note: Kinda funny how that notification in itself is a distraction.)
The data shows that if you are interrupted and move to another working sphere, it takes 23 minutes and 15 seconds on average to get back to what you were originally working on.
Interruptions create significantly higher stress levels
The research lab also confirmed that interruptions do not only reduce productivity but also tire us out. If you’re switching continually throughout the day, there are cumulative effects. People frequently reported feeling burnt out and exhausted. The more that people switch their attention, the higher their stress level is. Also when people are interrupted, they had higher levels of stress, frustration, mental effort, feeling of time pressure and mental workload. So here we are, thinking we are getting a lot of work done just because we live in a world full of infinite distractions and interruptions, but really, we are getting a lot less done and getting more exhausted.
The shocking part of all this is the pattern of SELF-INTERRUPTION
First, let’s differentiate between external and internal interruptions:
- External interruptions are things like e-mail or text notifications or a person coming in to your office.
- Internal interruptions are self-interruptions. From an observers perspective, they may be typing a word document and then for no apparent reason, they stop doing that and they check their e-mail or check Facebook. These internal interruptions are happening almost as frequently as external ones!
“We found that whenever external interruptions are pretty high in any particular hour, and then for the next hour, if the level of external interruptions wane, people will self-interrupt. So in other words, even if you had a hectic hour where you had to respond to a lot of e-mails and people kept stopping by your desk, even if the next hour calms down and you had no external-interruptions the next hour, YOU WILL INTERRUPT YOURSELF. (I definitely notice this pattern and wrote a bit about how to focus and to be aware of subconscious self-sabotage.)
We are “Modern-Day Junkies” (Information Addicts)
Dr. Dimitrios Tsivrikos, a Consumer Psychologist at the University College of London says, “We see that most people that live in urban cities or big cities are CRAVING for information because they feel that information will keep them informed and want to keep up with their friends and family and want to be educated. In reality they are over-indulging in information that is not always useful and not being stored in any meaningful way.” He estimates that only half of the information we get everyday is actually remembered. The long-term consequences of this kind of information overload is unknown.
So how do we fix this?
Make a new to-do-list every morning!
I’m a huge fan of to-do lists. I can’t get much done without a to-do list. And in this podcast episode, the neuroscientist says that we can’t efficiently keep more than FOUR things in our head. If you have more than four-things in your mind, your brain will be competing for neural resources and will keep bugging you to remind you to do those things (or you may forget them). But if you write/type them down, your brain is smart and knows it doesn’t have to keep nagging you so it will relax.
If you make a to-do-list and prioritize the list so you focus on those, one task at a time until it is done, that means by the end of the day you would have, by definition, done the most important things.
And if you got coworkers or family around you that can interrupt you, tell them to give you some space because you’re busy. Another tip is to set a deadline for yourself on a particular task to force you to focus on it. A simple pen & paper or the basic “notes/notepad” program works wonderfully. (For more info on to-do-lists, I have a blog post where I give tips on how to start a to-do-list for LIFE.)
Well, that’s a wrap folks…
I hope you found this post valuable and I wish you the ability to focus a little better. Please share it with your family and friends because this topic is more prevalent than ever. I particularly enjoyed writing this because it ties together many topics that I’ve wrote about before, such as how to increase concentration, productivity, and remove distractions and how to do one thing at a time. For my future blog post, I will be switching back to some fitness related posts. Stay tuned!