Several years ago, I devised a system for quickly getting into the “zone” while I worked. Free from distractions and interruptions, I wrote quickly, joyfully, and with surprisingly little effort.
But now freedom from distractions and interruptions seems like a fantasy. My husband and I are both working from home and our kids are doing school from home. Although we all have designated places to work, my family is forever interrupting me, jarring me out of my flow. For example, my husband likes to use the printer that is in my office (because I keep the paper and toner filled). He’ll saunter into my office to pick up whatever he’s printed, and even if I’m clearly trying to focus, he’ll put his face right in front of my computer screen and lean in for a smooch.
I recognize how sweet this is. And I am super grateful to have such a loving and affectionate husband. And I appreciate that I still have work. And I do like seeing him and our kids so much.
And also…Like many parents these days, I’m a little on edge, and each interruption has the potential to unleash a riptide of irritation. Even when the person interrupting me is a considerate and whispering teenager needing a change of scenery (“the chair in your office is so comfortable!”), or a loving husband who wants to shower me with affection, I sometimes feel frustrated and snappish.
Am I overreacting? Perhaps I could try harder to keep my irritation in check, but research gives me some grounds for it. In fact, studies have found that getting interrupted isn’t just a nuisance; it’s costly and problematic.
Here are three sometimes hidden costs to interruptions.
For starters, they cost us a lot of time.
On average, interruptions take 23 minutes and 15 seconds to recover from–even if the distraction is only a minute!
For example, say I’m uber-focused, but then my hubby comes in for a minute or two to chit-chat about dinner plans. Before I turn my attention back to my work, I might decide to take a quick peek at my email, and while I’m doing that, notice that I’ve missed a call and three texts. If I answer just a few of these incoming communications, it may well be longer than 23 minutes before I get back to work.
I suppose, if I tried really hard, I could get back on track faster. But that effort takes focus and energy that I could be putting toward my writing or other work.
Second, interruptions lower the quality of our work.
A mountain of research has demonstrated time and again that interruptions increase our error rate. For example, when college students that are concentrating on a task are interrupted for 2.8 seconds, they make twice as many errors as those who are not interrupted. When they are interrupted for 4.4 seconds, their error rate triples.
According to Glenn Wilson at the University of London, just being in a work situation where you can be interrupted by text and email can decrease your IQ by 10 points. For writers like me, the news here is even more depressing: Interruptions measurably lower both the quantity and the quality of writing we can do in even a very short period of time (20 minutes).
Finally, interruptions contribute to stress and overwhelm, making us feel conflicted and time-pressured.
As we shift our focus between tasks–as when we steal a glance at our email while we are working on a presentation–it increases our perception that we have too much to do in the time that we have to do it.
According to Gloria Mark, who studies interruption at UC Irvine, when we are diverted from one task to another, we can pick up our work pace to make up for lost time, but this increased speed comes at a cost: People who’ve been interrupted report having a greater workload, more stress and frustration, feeling more time pressure, and exerting more effort.
And guess what? This makes a lot of people feel annoyed, anxious, and irritable, as I do. Behavioral scientist Alan Keen believes the stress and overload that comes from constantly being expected to multitask is causing an “epidemic of rage.” Interruption and task switching raises stress hormones and adrenaline, which tends to make us more aggressive and impulsive.
In other words, interruption drains our energy and dampens our performance. The stress, inefficiency, inaccuracy, and time pressure that interruptions create are the very opposite of being in the sweet spot.
None of us needs the added stress of daily, constant interruptions during these difficult times. But for most parents working from home, near-constant interruption is inevitable. We can work hard to eliminate interruptions (see below for ideas about how), but in all likelihood, our efforts will often be thwarted.
Simply understanding why we feel so irritated by constant interruption can help. Research shows that identifying and labeling a difficult experience and the emotions that go with it allows us to recover a modicum of control. This “name it to tame it” technique works by decreasing activity in the brain’s fear and emotion centers, like the amygdala, and increasing activity in the frontal lobe, where reasoning occurs.
Labeling what is happening with us in the present — both the fact that we’ve just been interrupted again and the way we are feeling about it — is a form of acceptance. Acceptance is not the same as resignation; it’s not that our efforts to eliminate interruptions will never work, or that things won’t improve. Everything changes. But accepting our present reality does tend to make us more effective in the face of challenge. And fortunately, it can help us feel better.
Tips for Finding Focus
Without focus, kids struggle to learn and parents struggle to work. To minimize the interruptions and distractions that kill focus, we can do the following:
Designate a learning or working playing field.
We all need a place where we can concentrate, and when we designate a place that is for concentration only, we train our brains to focus better.
For example, a kid might have a specific spot at a small desk in a hallway where they do their online schooling and their homework—and only those things. You will have a different place for work. Leave your desks to check social media or do anything but focused work. Step away from your desk when you take breaks. Bonus: Our presence at that desk can be a signal to others in the household that we are trying to focus, and that everyone else needs to be quiet and careful not to interrupt.
Identify your feelings.
Interruptions and distractions can be both external (losing internet access, a Snapchat alert) and internal (feeling stressed or overwhelmed). Research shows that when we stuff our feelings down (also known as “emotional suppression”), our intelligence and learning suffer. Pretending to feel fine even when we are actually feeling something else takes energy and self-control, and that steals the energy and willpower needed to focus.
The task here is to identify what we are feeling, not necessarily why we are feeling that way. This can be difficult. We can get attached to our narratives about why we are upset and get caught up in trying to problem-solve. But that won’t help us focus. We need to talk about the actual emotions, not the reasons for the emotions.
It might seem blazingly obvious that in order to focus, we will need to focus on one thing at a time, but this is no longer the way of the world. Even though multitasking is wildly inefficient, it feels productive. Especially for kids who are feeling bored and stuck at home, having a lot of screens open and alerts coming in makes them feel busy and stimulated.
But multitasking is the enemy of focus. The human brain did not evolve to focus on many things at once, and it can’t actually do it—it can only switch rapidly back and forth between tasks. This is a giant energy drain for our brains in many ways. It makes us tired (or wired) and inattentive. Most of all, multitasking makes learning and working inefficient.
We do better when we configure our work and learning environments, our devices, and our online time so that we aren’t tempted to multitask—so we’re less distracted by alerts and less tempted to check social media compulsively. Turn off all alerts and turn on “do not disturb” when you are trying to get into the flow.
Looking for more ways to find focus?
Check out Unit 4 of my online class, The Science of Finding Flow: