Distraction, Distraction, What’s Your Attraction? Overcoming Distractions and Rethinking Multitasking

In this day and age, it can be rather challenging for most of us to go an hour, let alone ten minutes, without checking our phones, email or Facebook. It is not new knowledge that technology serves as a great distraction in our modern life. However, very few of us understand exactly how damaging technological distractions can be in various aspects of our lives.

Technological distractions can negatively impact our lives at home, school, and work. It can hurt our relationships and productivity. It can even lead to physical danger (ie, texting and driving). Consider these research findings:
Typical office workers only get 11 minutes of continuous work on a task before an interruption.

Students who checked their Facebook at least once during a fifteen minute study period received lower grades than students who remained focused.

-A 2.8 second interruption more than doubled the number of errors study participants made when they were asked about where they were in a sequence of tasks.

Merely having a cell phone visible in a room made people less likely to develop a sense of intimacy and empathetic understanding during their personal discussions

Texting while driving takes the driver’s eyes an average of 4.6 seconds off the road, and at 55 mph, that’s like driving the entire length of a football field blind.

Why are distractions so dangerous? We have a limited supply of attention daily and since distractions use up that finite supply, distractions make us much less effective in accomplishing deeper level work. Moreover, I think many of us underestimate the power distractions have on our daily lives.

Some may argue that distractions help us become better multitaskers and can increase our efficiency. While being able to juggle two or more tasks at once seems commendable, it can actually be harmful to our brain and overall productivity. Multitasking involves working on two tasks simultaneously (ie, reading while listening to classical music) and can only be possible if at least one of the task is automatic (requiring little focus) and the two tasks uses different types of brain processing. What we commonly think of as multitasking- the act of switching between tasks in succession- is called serial tasking.

Psychologists have found that switching between tasks takes some time and while it may be only maybe a few tenths of a second, it adds up when we are frequently switching back and forth between tasks. In fact, multitasking can cost us as much as 40% of our productive time. Also, taking on more than one task increases the likelihood of errors and can overload the brain’s working memory. Only few of us can multitask effectively and successfully, and those people are called supertaskers. Thus, it is more productive and better for our minds to focus on one task with full attention than to manage three or four smaller tasks simultaneously. Researchers suggest to dedicate a 20-minute chunk of time to a single task and then switch.

Given the adverse consequences of distractions and questionable effectiveness of multitasking, here are a few strategies to help us improve our focus:
1. Do creative work first: Work on tasks that require creativity and deeper thinking when you have all your energy and move on to easier tasks later in the day.
2. Allocate your time deliberately: Find out where and when you focus best and allocate your toughest tasks during those times.
3. Train your mind like a muscle: Practice turning off distractions and focusing on a single task a little bit at a time. Start small, and then build up into larger chunks of time.

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