Struggling to concentrate at work? You could be self-interrupting

·6-min read
Research shows that, on average, we spend only 12 minutes focusing on a particular project before we experience a significant interruption - Hero Images
Research shows that, on average, we spend only 12 minutes focusing on a particular project before we experience a significant interruption - Hero Images

The phone rings, a colleague asks for advice and there’s yet another notification indicating a new email has landed in your inbox, which you might as well read quickly before you get back to work. Most people are monochronic by nature, meaning that they like to focus on a single task at any given time, and therefore view constant workplace disruptions as a productivity black hole.

While these external interruptions may be plain and obvious to see, there is a more subtle type of interruption that happens just as frequently but which we are less aware of. These are internal interruptions where we interrupt ourselves; we essentially self-interrupt.⁠ This may be because we are feeling bored, unable to focus and in search of a quick reward. Or they may occur under the clever disguise of looking something up, but before we know it we are down a rabbit hole of associative thoughts jumping from link to link or app to app, forging a path along the internet, our original purpose long-forgotten.

However, once such habits become deeply ingrained in our brain, they become independent of reward and we may begin to self-interrupt to check email, news sites or apps out of habit without realising.

The toll of interruptions is often underestimated. Research shows that, on average, we spend only 12 minutes focusing on a particular project before we experience a significant interruption (one that lasts for more than two minutes) and it, subsequently, takes us about 23 minutes and 15 seconds to return to our original task.⁠ In addition to the time wasted, interruptions are cognitively draining, with energy being expended to re-orient our attention to our original task as well as using precious working memory storage to keep the said task in mind while dealing with interruptions. This is much like the speed and fuel inefficiency of completing a journey while starting and stopping a car multiple times.

The pandemic has led to a rise in screen time due to furlough, increased home working as well as the need to remain connected and be regularly updated on the rapidly changing situation. This unprecedented situation has increased anxiety, making focus harder for many of us, and leading to the development or escalation of self-interrupting habits manifesting as constantly checking the news, refreshing social media and repeatedly checking email.

If you are unsure whether you have self-interrupting habits, consider the following:

  • Do you deviate from an unfinished task to passively check your email inbox, messages or social media to “see what’s there” without actually answering any messages?

  • Do you check your email client, apps or news sites too frequently for anything new to have conceivably happened?

  • Do you go online to quickly look something up that is not necessary or can feasibly wait until you finish your current task? Do you end up following a trail of links based purely on interest and look up to find that more time has passed than you realised?

If you can relate to any of the above questions, it is likely that you are one of the many people that have self-interrupting habits. Dealing with such habits is important as studies show that we work faster to compensate for multiple interruptions and this may lead to a feeling of higher workload, more time pressure and increased stress levels.

It may be tempting to want to change every self-interrupting habit immediately and, from this moment onwards, live a life of constant focus. However, such changes in our brain take a long time. Studies show it can take anything from 18 to 254 days to create a new automatic habit and it is likely that changing existing deeply ingrained habits will take even longer.

Below are some practical techniques to help you on this journey:

1. When you feel the urge to self-interrupt, delay rather than resist

Trying actively to suppress thoughts about something often makes us think about it even more. This rings true for many of us and was later tested and confirmed by psychologists. So instead of telling yourself you can never self-interrupt – hence making it even more tempting – tell yourself you can do it in five minutes. By then it is likely that the urge to self-interrupt will have faded and, even if that is not the case, it teaches our brain not to act on impulse and reduces the instant gratification obtained from getting distracted by something more enticing.

2. Set up ‘speed bumps’ to slow down automatic habits

Habits are stored in the basal ganglia, a different part of the brain to the one that stores long-term goals, sustains attention and does our complex thinking. Such habits are relatively automatic and we may do them without being fully aware of them. I therefore advise setting up some ‘speed bumps’, much like the ones used on the road to slow us down and make us aware of our speed, to make us aware of these habits. My personal favourite is logging off social media or other enticing apps and having to enter passwords manually, which requires conscious effort. Deleting browser history and cookies makes it more effortful to log into certain websites, and, to make the speed bumps even bigger, you could set up two-factor authentication for places that you really want to avoid.

3. Make self-interruptions less rewarding

Reward is a powerful driver of habits and the release of dopamine, triggered by novelty and unexpected reward, provides an antidote to the feeling of boredom that precedes self-interruptions and then reinforces the habit. To counter that, make self-interruptions less rewarding. For example, create a rule that if you self-interrupt to check your email, you must deal with all the messages that you see. This means checking email will no longer provide reward and novelty but rather cumbersome work.

4. Put measures in place to reduce external interruptions

The number of external interruptions is linked to the number of internal interruptions. A 2011 study found that the number of external interruptions in the previous hour significantly increased self-interruption in the next hour. This is thought to be because exposure to a lot of external interruptions could ‘break down’ a person’s attentional stamina, which could then make them more vulnerable to self-interrupt. To reduce external interruptions you can communicate to your co-workers specific times that you will do complex work and wish not to be interrupted, and close your email client or other workplace messaging system so you are not notified of every new development. If possible, put your mobile phone in another room rather than at your desk, a method which was shown to increase performance when solving complex puzzles.

Rather than aiming for a completely interruption-free day, it may be more feasible to set a realistic time and place based on your particular situation to apply the above techniques. When it comes to habit change, consistency is more important than ambition so a consistent 20 minutes per day will be better than an inconsistent hour and will provide the right foundation to build on to become more productive.

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