Productivity Killers

woman dressed like a superhero thinking that multitasking improves her productivity
Is Multitasking Lowering Your Productivity?

Here’s a challenge for you: Can you read this entire article from start to finish without being distracted even once by your phone, an incoming email, a notification or some other distraction? How would those distractions affect your ultimate retention and understanding of the subject matter? The answers to those questions may surprise you.

In this digital day and age, we assume that distractions are a normal part of life. It’s worthwhile to challenge this assumption and consider the impact on your productivity and focus of these frequent interruptions. Why is this important? Like most of us, you have tons to accomplish every single day. You also have life goals that you want to reach. Maybe you want to work towards enjoying greater health and happiness or making a bigger impact with the work that you do or improving your relationships. Not sustaining a singular focus impacts your ability to get stuff done and to achieve those goals.

The Cost of Distraction

Interestingly, most people believe that they are more efficient when they are busy multi-tasking. In fact, researchers have found that we actually do work faster when we’re faced with a lot of distractions. That may be because we subconsciously feel that we have to overcompensate for the interruptions or that there is a perception that there is more to do.

Increased Anxiety

However, studies show that the cost of distractions affects something far more significant than your productivity, which is your mental well-being. That’s because distractions make you feel more anxious and stressed. Higher levels of anxiety affect every part of your body and your life.

Productivity Recovery Time

The negative impact of even short distractions like that is surprising. One study found that it takes an astonishing 23 minutes and 15 seconds to regain your focus after a single interruption. Let’s put that information into perspective for a moment. How often does your phone flash, ring or buzz while you’re in the midst of doing something else? If it takes over 20 minutes to recover every single time that happens, how much of your day is spent in “productivity recovery”? How does the loss of that time, multiple times per day, affect your long-term health and your productivity goals?

Lower Accuracy

As well, being distracted affects your accuracy. This makes sense: Your brain can only handle so much input at a time. Input overload means that the information coming in can become confused or details can be missed. What is really surprising is how little time it takes to derail your focus and affect your accuracy. In the time it takes to look at your phone when a notification beeps (as little as three seconds of this kind of distraction) adversely affects your focus and, in turn, your accuracy.

Altered Memory Function

Let’s consider what happens when you are looking things up while you watch a movie. Do you really follow the plot as carefully? Do you remember the details of the movie as well? Do you retain the information about what you looked up? Science suggests that you don’t. In fact, researchers have found that the way we remember things has changed since the advent of the Internet. Our memory functions have been altered. Sensory input alters the wiring in our brains. The type of input our brains have been getting has changed considerably since the internet came into being.

How To Maintain Your Focus and Prevent Distractions

If you would like to reduce the impact of distractions in your life, it’s important to recognize the distinction between a necessary and even productive break and a distraction. A break is a good time to recharge your battery and clear your mind. We’re generally more productive after we have stepped away from work for a bit. Planned breaks provide an incentive to work hard or complete a task leading up to the break. In contrast, a distraction is unexpected and unpredictable. It comes out of nowhere at random times including when we are in what is known as a “flow state”.

What is this flow state, you ask?

The origins of the terms “flow” or “flow state” come from the practices of Daoism or Buddhism, and in a more modern sense from positive psychology. Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi named this state of hyperfocus “flow” in 1975 after the flow of a river. It references being so totally immersed in something that you are swept away like the flow of the current.

The following are some of the factors that may be present when you experience a flow state:

  1. You have an intense and focused concentration on the present moment or task
  2. There is a merging of your action and your awareness
  3. You feel a sense of personal control over the situation or activity
  4. Your perception or experience of time is altered, as in the expression time flies when you are having fun
  5. Your experience of the activity is intrinsically rewarding, that is, it is likely to provide you with a hit of the reward neurotransmitter dopamine
  6. You feel the potential to succeed at the task
  7. You feel so engrossed in the experience, that other needs become negligible. For example, you forget to eat lunch.

How to Reduce Your Distractions and Increase Your Productivity

We tend to think of distractions as something that is imposed on us by someone else or out of our control, but there are steps that we can take to reduce them.

Turn Off Your Notifications

It might feel like an adjustment at first to do away with the little red dot that tells you how much has been happening on Facebook, Twitter or in the news, but you’ll soon realize that you don’t miss anything important. You simply gain more control over when and where you get information. (It might help to remember that the ultimate goal of the apps on your device isn’t to keep you informed – it’s to make money by grabbing your attention.)

Take Control Of Your Devices

Yes, we all rely on our phones every single day, but do we really need to be notified whenever something happens, particularly items that are of little significance in the grand scheme of things? This is your own personal preference. It depends on your specific situation of course, but it helps to customize your apps and your phone’s notifications. For example, many times parents are reluctant to turn their phones off in case their children need them. But, you can adjust your settings so that all of your contacts, except for the most important ones, are muted, particularly overnight.

It’s ok to let people know that, starting now, you may not respond immediately to email or text messages. If something is urgent, it is best that they call you. If you get a lot of work-related emails, a good habit is to set aside specific times for checking your email. For example, rather than interrupting what you are doing and frequently checking your inbox throughout the day, check emails once every two hours, between tasks or once in the morning and once at the end of the day. This reduces the amount of time spent on emails by batching them. It keeps your concentration and your train of thought on the one task for better efficiency and frees up time to keep your concentration on other things between assigned email time.

Train Your Brain To Re-Focus

Now that you understand how long it can take to regain your focus after each distraction, make a conscious effort to get back on task faster! Getting back on track is a skill that you can master just like many others. Just like with regular exercise, the more you exercise your ability to re-focus and discipline yourself to stay on a specific task, the easier it gets.

Schedule Breaks

It’s important to take a break when you are focused on a lengthy task. You’re less likely to be distracted and stay on task if you schedule a bit of time to relax – see it as a reward if that helps. Studies suggest that there are optimal work/break time frames for productivity. Some say it is best to work for 52 minutes and then take a 7-minute break. These studies show that regular breaks actually make you more productive! However, those breaks should mindful ones, not just filled up with more distracting things begging for your attention. So take a walk, meditate, do some jumping jacks or crunches or even have a quick nap. The important thing is to clear your mind and give it a chance to reset.

How Does Lifestyle Affect Focus and Productivity?

It’s also important to look at how aspects of your lifestyle affect your focus and ability to be productive. If you’re rested and healthy, distractions don’t impact you as much as they would if you are not.

Simple adjustments like introducing a 10-minute per day yoga practice, or going to bed 30 minutes earlier, will positively impact your ability to focus and improve your response to interruptions.

Health Issues that Affect Focus and Productivity

If you have tried all the tips and tricks we’ve just discussed and still find it difficult to stay on task it might be a good idea to check in on your overall health. Many health problems such as thyroid issues, hormonal imbalances, food sensitivities, and nutrient deficiencies lead to “foggy thinking” and slow response times. The good news is, we’ll help you to uncover these issues with a thorough health assessment that includes lab tests, where appropriate.

How are distractions affecting your health and your work performance? It’s something to think about. if you have been making efforts but still find it harder to focus than ever before or your experience brain fog, or forgetfulness, there could be more factors at play so give us a call at 416-481-0222 or book an appointment online now.

By Dr. Pamela Frank, BSc(Hons), Naturopathic Doctor

Productivity Research

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