How to Stay Focused at Work Despite Constant Online Interruptions


Do you often get distracted when people chat with you on instant messaging? Constant interruptions can have disastrous effects on your productivity at work, forcing you to work additional hours early in the morning or late in the evening.

Unfortunately, for many of us, frequent online communications are vital for our organization’s success. So what can we do to reduce the impact of all these interruptions? Let’s tackle this problem with a simple and easy hack.

Focus death by a thousand interruptions

In ancient China, Lingchi was a form of execution commonly known as “death by a thousand cuts”. Needless to say, that was painful. Don’t worry, I won’t get into macabre details about that.

The point is to illustrate how the accumulation of injuries leads to lethal consequences. When you are working, your concentration similarly takes many cuts. One of the major sources of cuts is the interruptions you get from your co-workers’ online conversations. If accumulated, it can kill your daily productivity.

Why interruptions kill your productivity

It might seem ok to get interrupted all day long. After all, your co-workers need help, right? But it’s essential to understand the costs.

When you are absorbed in a task, you manipulate mental objects in your short-term memory, also called working memory. Switching tasks requires changing context in your working memory. You clear the mental objects associated with the old task and load new mental objects associated with the other task.

This is not trivial when you get interrupted, as it’s often difficult to figure out exactly where you left off. Which leads to operational overhead for your brain. As if that wasn’t severe enough, there’s another cost even more pernicious.

Attention residue

When you switch context in your working memory, you don’t immediately clear every object associated with the old task. There is an attention residue that stays stuck in your brain.

The new task doesn’t get your full attention right away because you are still partially focused on the previous piece of work. And this penalty on your concentration can be devastating.

Back in 2005, a study found that people spend as much as 20 minutes getting back to a task after being interrupted. How can we reduce this terrible fate?

A simple hack to reduce attention residue

To reduce the attention residue caused by task switching, your mind needs to be fully convinced that the previous piece of work is over. In other words, you need to close the loop that your co-worker has opened by starting a conversation with you.

But this is not always that easy, especially when using online instant messaging. I bet you already experienced conversations where your partner seems to have disappeared. Somehow, when you go back to your task, you have this impression in your mind that this person can interrupt you again at any moment.

This produces an awful amount of attention residue lingering in your mind, preventing you from giving full attention to your present work. I often had this problem, and now I use a little hack to close the loop.

What I say to my conversation partner is something like:
– I have to go back to <name of the task>, talk to you later!

This helps convince my brain that the conversation is over. It also signals to my conversation partner that I strive to direct my full attention to my task, which reduces the expectation that I will answer immediately if they add a message to the conversation.

I hope you enjoyed this piece. Next time you get stuck in a lingering online conversation with no end in sight, just use this simple technique. You will get back much quicker to your work, and it will signal to your partner you need to be concentrated. The next step will be to turn this into a habit, and your productivity will be greatly enhanced!

Featureed photo by Christina @ on Unsplash

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Alex Philippe

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