Published on 23 Apr 2023

Interrupted again? Act on it to stay focused

Being aware of the triggers that break one's concentration and taking steps to counter them are some steps to help one remain on task. 

Imagine being interrupted 60 times an hour as you are working on something important. With such a high degree of interruption, how can anything get done?

Yet in reality, interruptions are happening even more frequently than that. Researchers have found that workers spend less than 47 seconds on a screen before being interrupted.

Sceptical about the figures? Researchers have quantified this epidemic of interruptions in numerous studies.

Many of the studies in the field have been led by Professor Gloria Mark, from University of Irvine in California. She has also come up with ways for people to keep their focus, a useful skill for everyone from students to seasoned workers.Prof Mark has a PhD in psychology and has been studying how personal technologies affect people's ability to focus for the last 20 years. She is concurrently a visiting senior researcher at Microsoft Research. She wrote in her best-selling book, Attention Span, that the frequency of attention interruptions at work has escalated alarmingly over the years. Two decades ago, when she started her research, people were interrupted only about 24 times an hour. Today, they are likely to be interrupted about 80 times an hour.

Researchers are able to study these incessant interruptions using sensors and cameras, and logging keystrokes of study participants in their work environment.

In Prof Mark's studies, she has found that people's attention spans have become "crazily short".

The problem is not just confined to younger workers and students. She has found that the phenomenon of shortened attention span is true for everyone: baby boomers, Gen X and millennials, as well as Gen Z.

Ironically, the interruptions do not just originate from distracting colleagues in an open office environment, or from e-mail or social media notifications on the mobile phone.

Research shows that many of the interruptions that knowledge workers encounter actually originate from themselves.

In research studies, people are observed working on a task on their computers and suddenly stopped what they were doing and checked their e-mail or picked up their phone.

This happens even when there is no discernible trigger.

Such self-interruptions happen when an individual is trying to concentrate, yet suddenly stops working to check on a sports statistic or the weather, or just to scroll through social media, for no apparent reason at all.

Prof Mark found that "people are nearly as likely to self-interrupt due to something internal to them as be interrupted by something external to them".

What happens when people are interrupted? The good news is that research has found that 77 per cent of interrupted tasks are returned to in the same workday. The bad news is that people usually take 25 minutes to do so, and typically work on two to three other intervening tasks before returning to the original task.

Given the epidemic of interruptions, is it any wonder that workers are reportedly becoming increasingly stressed. People report working harder, but getting less done.

The McKinsey Health Institute surveyed 15,000 employees across 15 countries and found widespread and persistent symptoms of distress, depression and anxiety.

What can be done to restore the balance between getting things done and being interrupted?

Prof Mark suggests a few specific actions to take. They spell out ACT – the action that needs to happen, for workers to reclaim their productivity in the face of non-stop disruptions.

First, awareness. The first step towards addressing the onslaught of intrusions is to be aware of it. When an urge to self-interrupt arises, it is good to ask what is gained from the time spent on TikTok, Instagram or other social media.

If social media is the main activity that sucks up valuable time, create friction in the use of it, like confining its use only to the daily commute and perhaps during lunch hour.

Another suggestion is to think ahead to the end of the day and ask what the consequences of not completing key tasks will be. Will it result in having to stay late in the office? Will work supervisors or colleagues be upset? Thinking through can help to steel the resolve to finish key and urgent tasks.

Next is managing cognitive resources. Prof Mark defines cognitive resource as the limited attentional capacity that each person has to get things done. She believes that cognitive resource is precious, just as time is precious, and should be similarly managed.

While working on a difficult task, like writing a report or compiling a spreadsheet, the act of staying focused and completing the task drains precious cognitive resources. Jumping from task to task can result in a further drain on resources, to figure out where the task was left off and how to move forward.

The recommendation is to "keep thinking of your internal gauge and recognise when your tank is full and ready for hard, creative work". Similarly, to know when it is empty and needs to be replenished.

In the same vein, researchers recommend using rewards to motivate oneself to be productive.

When a cognitively difficult task is completed, a small reward like a caffeine beverage or a block of social media time could be indulged in.These activities allow cognitive resources to be refreshed, in preparation for the next task.

Finally, take charge. Practically, what this means is to reconfigure the work screen. Switch off automatic notifications on the cellphone and other work devices. That way, the devices will not be pinging with notifications from Slack, e-mail or social media. Another suggestion is to stubbornly refuse to switch screens while working until the task that needs to be completed is done.

In our household, we have applied some of these practical suggestions into our work and study routines. When our two boys are studying, we discourage them from using their smartphones.

Given that they both work on a communal table in the living room, we parents are able to track if there is frequent switching of screens, which could indicate that they are self-interrupting and becoming less productive.

And we have a collection of noise-cancelling headphones to help create the right environment for work to get done.What has been especially useful has been our adoption of the Pomodoro Technique. This simple time management method breaks work tasks up into 25-minute intervals, followed by a five-minute break. It is common for a few of the family members who are working from home to synchronise our work periods. We are not allowed to talk to one another, phones are silenced, and there is no switching of screens until the countdown timer buzzes for the five-minute break. This technique, named after a cheap countdown timer shaped like a tomato, has helped our family get much important work done. It is especially motivating to know that someone else is working alongside you and have other members of the family hold you accountable to maintain your focus while working.

It seems inevitable that the future of work is one where the onslaught of interruptions can only get worse.

By following the simple ACT advice, maybe our boys will have some inoculation from the inevitable disruptions, and learn how to thrive and be productive, despite the distractions around them.

The writer Abel Ang is the chief executive of a medical technology company and an adjunct professor at Nanyang Business School.


Source : The Straits Times