At this time of year, good weather predominates over much of the planet, and many of us are trying to find ways to get out and enjoy it. Whether we’re professionals trying to get outside before or after an eight hour—or more—day, or students finishing up end-of-term assignments, there’s generally “just one more thing” we have to do before we can get into the fresh air. And that last thing can seem to take forever to wrap up.
One of the main reasons that the last thing we need to finish turns into the task that never ends is interruptions.
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 shows just how harmful mental “disconnects” can be.
Altmann, Trafton, and Hambrich found that brief interruptions, think three seconds or so, double the number of mistakes that people make on tasks that are “relatively difficult.”
Previous research with people doing work that requires mental focus found that when their thoughts were interrupted by nearby conversations, or e-mails, or text 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.
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 place 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 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.
To optimize your performance, try to start and finish whatever mental work you’re doing in the same space. If you’re able to do that, instead of continually relocating to a new spot, your mind will work better and you’ll forget fewer of those little sparks of inspiration that occur to you as you concentrate.
Give yourself the opportunity to succeed when you're trying to concentrate—a thought and a pleasant sunny day are terrible things to waste.