We all know that interruptions compromise our ability to be productive, make it extremely hard to think, and undermine our motivation to get things done.
And interruptions are everywhere!
So how can we deal with them?
We start by looking at the neuroscience. After all these years studying the brain, I have come to respect and appreciate that most of the time, my brain is just doing what it was wired to do. And if I tackle my challenges from a perspective of working with my brain’s natural tendencies instead of fighting them, I have less frustration and far greater results.
Here’s how the brain works:
When conversations are happening around us, our concentration is broken because like it or not, our brain wants to hear what’s being said. It doesn’t want to miss anything important! This is because of a deeply-rooted survival mechanism that is all about keeping us alive and safe. The brain is actually doing its job – and here’s the key thing to remember about this tendency: We can’t turn it off.
When we are interrupted by other people, sometimes the effect is negative and sometimes, believe it or not, the effect is actually positive. Gloria Mark, a professor of Informatics at UC Irvine did a study of people in the workplace timing (to the second) when they changed activities. Here’s what the study revealed:
- If someone interrupts with a message/question that is related to the topic at hand, that kind of interruption can have a positive effect. This is because all our brain’s neurons are firing about the same information.
- Inconsequential interruptions that don’t require any brain power have an insignificant effect. So if someone interrupts to say: “I’m going to get coffee” or “The meeting has been cancelled”, it’s generally no big deal.
- Interruptions that have the greatest negative effect are the ones about an unrelated topic. Dr. Mark’s study showed that not only do these cause the greatest stress, it took an average of 23 minutes for the person to get back in the original task. This is because we’ve made our brains disengage from one set of engaged neurons and move to a completely different set.
Here is another shocking fact that she discovered:
Half the interruptions we experience are self-inflicted
“What are you talking about? I don’t interrupt myself!”
Well, maybe. But if you’re like me, it happens all the time. Think of:
- Hearing a notification on the phone
- Seeing a flash news alert (who doesn’t want to know what Meghan Markle is doing?)
- Spontaneously checking out airfares to.. [fill in the blank…]
- Jumping to another task because you remembered something super critical that really needs to be handled asap…
And if I’m honest, those 10-second checks on my phone really are more like a 15 minute diversion.
So here’s the million dollar question: What does your brain need to focus?