The Cognitive Costs of Losing Focus at Work to Interruptions

Focus at work is under siege. Everything can interrupt your focus. Coworkers asking you out on a break. A nearby call ringing its way into your focus. And most of all, the myriad distractions new tech put on the table. The buzzes, the dings, the rings. The trouble is, if you don’t focus at work, work doesn’t get done by itself. Hence, focus at work matters.

The Cognitive Costs of Losing Focus at Work

Here are the cognitive costs of losing focus at work and how to prevent losing it, compiled after reading nearly 20 research papers.

What happens when you lose focus at work

Let’s go through some cognitive science data and understand what happens when we lose focus at work. To get us started, the main cognitive cost of losing focus at work is that you tire much sooner. And staying productive while tired at work is tough to manage.

Knowledge work or creative work are the most affected. Why because interruptions are less detrimental to physical tasks. In fact, interruptions increase the time necessary to complete cognitive tasks. Even worse, they increase the rate of error in skill tasks.

Losing focus at work and interruption frequency

By now it should be obvious that interruptions are detrimental to focus. With every interruption, you need to change focus. And that change is costly.

In fact, research shows that more interruptions stack to worsen your performance. Yet, the issue is no longer mere loss of focus. Instead, what you experience is drastic loss of performance. The more often you get interrupted, the worse your work has to suffer. This obviously adds to work pressure.

Moreover, interruptions create prospective memory tasks. How? Interruptions abruptly divert attention. Hence, your focus at work is redirected to something irrelevant. Recovering from that implies that you need to reorganize your memory. In effect, you overload it by mixing two ideas at once. This leads to resumption failure

As for your focus, even one interruption is enough. Moreover, losing focus can waste as much as 6 hours a day, according to experts. You will need a lot of  time management tips to cover for those wasted hours.

One interruption can ruin it all

One interruption is enough to kill a brilliant idea. If your work is creative, one interruption is enough to shut a brilliant solution down. Don’t worry, it may come back to you. But that recovery is costly.

Even judgement calls are affected by interruptions. As much as one auditory interruption reflects in poorer judgement and poorer recall. Recall of what? Whatever information you were processing prior to the interruption. Specifically, your brilliant idea.

Besides, focus entails prioritization. And prioritization makes you achieve goals, disruptions don’t.

Disrupting focus at work affects decision making. Surprisingly, interruptions can improve decision-making on simple tasks. Simultaneously, it lowers performance in decision-making on complex tasks. Both studies confirm each other’s findings.

Disrupting focus at work is only beneficial to decision-making concerning very simple tasks. Moreover, it adds to decision fatigue.

Focus at work vs. similar, repeated interruptions

Very often you get interrupted by a similar thing. It may be a constant, regular noise. When whatever it is that disrupts your focus at work is something repeated. A new message notification, perhaps. Or even a phone ringing, a door closing, anything.

Similar, repeated interruptions actually affect your overall productivity more than different interruptions. On the other hand, non-similar interruptions stimulate cognition. To clarify, they’re still interruptions and will ruin your focus. However, they might be better for overall productivity.

Even visual cues are disruptive, starting with a notification blimp. Why? Because registering the blimp counts as an interruption. In effect, your brain is already dealing with something else.

Moreover, social media is addictive. Spending time on social media affects your dopamine levels. Cocaine does that too, at a different scale.

What’s worrying is that social media affects same brain areas as drugs. And when it comes to your focus at work, disrupting it becomes a compulsion.

Focus at work and the myth of multitasking

Multitasking is a great way to disrupt your focus at work. Surely you can do two things at once, or more. Walking and talking, for example. Multitasking is not this. It’s attempting to work on two or more things at once, in parallel. Yet that doesn’t really work. Why do we believe it works? Because we feel as if it does. Even though research shows that multitasking can make you perceptually blind. Your brain goes into a forced holiday. And we all know that regaining productivity after holidays is tough.

When we switch between tasks during multitasking, we pay a high toll. Our brains cannot perform tasks simultaneously. We start/stop something in the brain whenever we switch tasks. Research suggests that focusing on a single task makes us perform better.

Meanwhile, switching between tasks significantly reduces our performance. At the same time, we are left feeling agitated. As if we’ve done a good job. Sure, research suggests humans are very good at task switching. In fact, we are so good at it that we think we’re doing several tasks at a time.

The main way multitasking disrupts focus at work is that it is, in fact, built on interruptions. Each of the tasks you “multitask” are tasks among which you switch. And, research shows, task switching reduces your performance.

Each time you switch tasks you go through goal shifting. Readily followed by task-rule activation and attention refocusing. That’s very tiring.

How to prevent losing focus at work

Clearly there must be some moment it’s OK to interrupt. There must be a a moment in which interruptions don’t disrupt focus at work.

In fact, there are two such moments, this study suggests. There are low-problem state moments. Whenever the issue at hand is of low difficulty. The second is not a moment. Rather, it is a solution. Something like a system capable to maintain the problem state during the interruption.

We have, in fact dedicated quite a few solutions to managing focus at work. We wrote about how to stay calm and keep your focus. Also, we wrote about how to beat distractions. We even covered how to use brainwave entrainment to achieve better focus. To telecommuters, here is how to stay focused when working from home.

By far the most important thing is to overcome interruptions and avoid distractions. Of course, you can rewire your brain for productivity However, taking smart, strategic breaks will  you regulate and maintain your focus at work.

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