Life, especially at the office, is just one distraction after another. It’s not uncommon for office workers to be interrupted as much as every three to 11 minutes, studies show. This constant stream of interruptions hurts productivity — unless you know how to deal with it.
The trick is to take a minute to make a list of what you need to do when you get back to the task at hand, especially if there’s a deadline involved. This “ready-to-resume” plan can help you disengage from what you’re working on and better focus on the immediate situation, according to new research.
“Interruptions are very difficult for the brain to execute, in part because we have a fundamental need for completion,” said Sophie Leroy, an associate professor at the University of Washington’s School of Business. “So when we are interrupted, we have to put aside unfinished work and the mind is basically going to fight with us because it doesn't like it.”
When we’re interrupted, the performance of our brain and the quality of our decisions go down.
Leroy calls this “attention residue” — we keep thinking about what we were doing or what we will need to do when we resume the interrupted work, while at the same time trying to handle the interruption. And that creates a distraction that prevents us from giving our full attention to the new task.
Leroy compares the human brain to a computer that slows down when too many programs are running.
“When we’re interrupted, the performance of our brain and the quality of our decisions go down. We tend not to process all the information in front of us. We have to simplify, so we take shortcuts and that's not always very good,” Leroy told NBC News BETTER.
Help your brain transition from task to task
The ready-to-resume plan doesn’t have to be long and complicated. Just a few notes about where you left off and what you still need to do will enable your brain to let go of the current task and move to the new one.
“Suddenly the brain is not going to worry that it has to remember to do X, Y and Z on this task. It's on paper. I can let go. Now I can relax because I won't forget about it,” Leroy explained. “And by doing that your attention is going to be able to switch much more effectively to the task that was interrupting you or the person who was interrupting you.”
Her advice: When someone needs your help with something unexpected, simply tell them to give you a few seconds so you can jot down a few things, and then give them your full attention.
Does a ready-to-resume plan really make a difference?
Leroy and her co-researcher Theresa Glomb at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Business conducted a series of laboratory studies. Volunteers were given a task with a deadline for completion and then interrupted to do something else.
Those who made a ready-to-resume list before making the switch were less likely to have attention residue.
“They were able to forget about or put aside the initial task and focus better on the new task with higher performance in that new task,” Glomb said. “It’s like parking a car — you get going more quickly when you’ve parked downhill.”
Simple, but effective
Alyx McNeal, a nurse manager at a major Seattle-area hospital, deals with constant interruptions. She decided to start making a ready-to-resume list after seeing Prof. Leroy on KING TV (the NBC affiliate in Seattle) recently.
“I usually have three or four tasks going at once and I need to prioritize when I get back to the task,” McNeal said. “Now I write down this is where I am and what I need to do when I return to my desk.”
McNeal said she finds that making a ready-to-resume plan is very helpful.
“It’s simple and it's free. If people are willing to try this, I think they're going to find it very useful,” she said.
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