People, Places, and Things

The psychology of design: How to create an environment in which you will thrive

Every Little Interruption Counts

When you're trying to think, set the stage for success.

When we’re trying to concentrate, even short interruptions can lead to big problems.

We all know that when we’re trying to marshal the cognitive power at our disposal to resolve a “situation,” be creative, or just plain get stuff done, disruptions are not good – and social science research continues to show just how harmful mental “disconnects” can be.

Altmann, Trafton, and Hambrich have found that brief interruptions, think 3 seconds or so, double the number of mistakes that people make on tasks that are “relatively difficult.” Forgetting to turn off your cell phone before you sit down to work just took on a whole new significance, didn’t it?

Previous research with people doing work that requires mental focus found that when their thoughts were interrupted by nearby conversations, or e-mails, or instant messages, or whatever, it took them 15 to 20 minutes to get back into the mental swing-of-things and fully return to the task at hand. Interruptions also add stress to our days, and that tension is distracting, as well.

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Don’t try to create perfectly silent spaces when you’re working – perfect silence is just as stressful for humans as noise – and unobtainable, anyway. Try to work in a space that minimizes the likelihood of distractions. Turn off your cell phone. Look for a space with a door if you need to focus, and close that door. Listen to nature recordings over headphones. Orient yourself so you can’t see other people nearby and can look outside, if you can – don’t forget that distractions can be visual, too. Try to avoid multi-tasking – watching the kids and getting some work done at the same time isn’t going to pan out. You get the idea.

Give yourself the opportunity to succeed when you're trying to concentrate – a thought is a terrible thing to waste.

Sally Augustin, Ph.D., is a practicing environmental psychologist who studies person-centered design and sensory science.

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