Eliminating distractions while working from home — especially with kids running around belting Frozen II and housemates doing mid-day workouts — might not be entirely feasible. However, it is still possible to mitigate distractions. After all, they’re hurting you — and your business — more than you might realize. You might have heard the popular statistic that you need an average of 25 minutes to get back to your original task after a distraction.
But there’s more affecting your productivity than that. We looked through some of the research behind the psychology of distractions and found some interesting insights:
- Distractions have a demonstrably negative effect on our ability to perform, even when the distractions had little significance.
- People who consider themselves at multi-tasking may be worse at moving from task to task than others.
- Even if you attempt to “move on” to another work-related task, you may find yourself distracted by the first task of your day.
With that in mind, let’s dig deeper into the studies and find some better strategies for managing distractions:
1. Too Much Information Has a Detrimental Impact on Performance
In one UK study, researchers had volunteers carry out problem-solving tasks in a quiet environment—then tested them while they were “bombarded with new emails and phone calls.” Even though the volunteers didn’t have to respond to any of these messages, simply being aware that they were taking place had a significant impact on their ability to concentrate.
The result was that performance suffered. The average IQ dropped by about 10 points.
The conclusion is that not only are interruptions distracting, but if you allow distractions to weigh on your mind in even the slightest way, they can have a detrimental impact on performance. Given that volunteers didn’t have to respond to any email or phone call and still found them distracting, we can only imagine the impact distractions have on us when the emails and phone calls do need responses.
So try having an open dialogue with those you live with and creating a chart that hangs outside of your workspace where it will be seen that alerts housemates of your current work status. It may include options such as “available,” “busy,” “in a meeting” or “do not disturb unless facing a MAJOR emergency”.
2. Switching Between Tasks Takes Up More Energy Than You Think
A 2009 study at the University of Minnesota found the existence of what they dubbed “attention residue.” They defined it as the delay that occurs when someone sets aside one task and takes up another.
It turns out that the mental task of switching gears takes more energy and attention than we might have thought. And that led to some interesting conclusions, including the “surprising result that heavy media multitaskers performed worse on a test of task-switching ability.”
That’s right: even experienced multitaskers aren’t as good at switching between tasks as they might have thought. In fact, they may even be worse than the population at large.
This should lead most people to reconsider their approach to multitasking and asking the following questions:
- Am I really a good multitasker, or do I just multitask often?
- How long does it take me to “switch gears,” and do I often put off work because of the energy required to start a new task?
- Where are some areas in which I might combine activities to minimize “switching gears” and improving my overall concentration?
These questions will help you identify some of the habits that may be leading you to lose concentration as you move from task to task. So whether you claim to be a good multitasker or not, try scheduling out your day in the early morning to help limit the amount of times you have to switch tasks and accommodate for the needs of those you live with.
3. The First Problem You Focus On Tends to Get Most of Your Brain Power
They call it “cognitive fixation.” If you like to multi-task, you may find that the first activity during your day is the one that retains most of your attention later on, even while you’re attempting to give 100% of your attention to something new.
This is evidence in favor of the strategy of attacking your most important tasks first. If you were to work on a big work project in the morning and only take on lighter menial tasks later in the day, part of your mind will continue to work on that “big” work project that you started off with. This can work to your benefit, so long as you’re aware of the effect and schedule your day accordingly.
4. Distractions are Disproportionately Affecting the Young
Millennials and Gen Zers—those most affected by the digital lifestyle—are also the groups that report the highest rates of distraction, with a rate of 74% identifying themselves as frequently distracted. This suggests something other studies have observed; the multi-tasking demands of the digital lifestyle have a detrimental effect on our ability to concentrate, which means that strategies for reducing social media usage may have long-term benefits for personal productivity and concentration.
One other reasons many of us may be suffering from distraction issues: using multiple devices at the same time can negatively affect self-control. So try to limit the number of devices you have within your reach while working from home. Allot yourself windows of time during the day — if needed — to check on certain devices.
5. Attention is a “Limited Resource”
Not only is our attention limited by the time we have in a day, but our energy is subject to the demands of being a living, breathing being. We simply don’t have as much energy to devote to willpower and attention as we’d like to have.
One study, as reported by Psychology Today, found that distractions eat into about 2 hours of our daily work lives. Given that our attention is a limited resource, the strategy of working on the most important task of the day as early as possible—while we still have the concentration to do it—may seem most effective.
One Reason to Use Distractions to Your Benefit
This post paints a very dire picture of the impact of distractions on our life. But if you can manage them effectively, you can sometimes use them to your benefit as well.
One study at Carnegie Mellon found that the regions of the brain that handle your decision-making process will still be in use even when you’re consciously focusing on something else. That means that sometimes, actively seeking distraction when you’re stuck on a problem can be a great way for you to relax, loosen up, and allow a solution to suddenly pop into your mind while you’re thinking about something else.
Otherwise, if you want to be productive while working from home, try to keep the distractions at a minimum (as much as possible), schedule out your day, and focus on your most important task of the day as soon as possible. Your calendar will thank you.