Eliminating Distractions

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No wonder it was so difficult to keep my ideas in order. My mind was constantly jumping around from one topic to the other, never maintaining a single train of thought for more than a few moments. My female readers might contend that my distraction has to do with my gender and that a woman would be able to keep track of multiple inputs without getting frazzled. However, some new research in the field of attention would suggest otherwise.

The Case Against Multi-Tasking

Psychology Today reviews a study demonstrating that people are actually pretty bad at multi-tasking even on simple tasks. Subjects asked to name pitches (high or low) at the same time as identifying a letter did fairly poorly when the two tasks occurred at the same time. Even more interesting, another study reviewed found that people who habitually multi-task were actually worse at dividing their attention. They had a decreased ability to filter out information irrelevant to the task and hand.

Another study demonstrated that the brain slows down in the transition from one task to another. Thus, in doing more different things, you actually take more time than you would if you simply chunked your tasks together; it is more efficient to do one thing straight through and finish it before moving on, than trying to do both things at the same time. In fact, the very concept of multi-tasking is actually an illusion. While the brain is capable of processing various tasks simultaneously subconsciously, the conscious mind is only capable of giving attention to one thing at a time. What we call multi-tasking is actually very rapid switching between mini-tasks.

If we think of our awareness as a single stream of consciousness, we start to see that by shifting our attention back and forth, we experience an incoherent stream, kind of like a TV set that keeps jumping channels. It takes time and energy for our thoughts to shift from one task to the other, and the result is decreased effectiveness and lowered efficiency. It will take more time to do two tasks simultaneously than to do one at a time, especially if those two tasks both require conscious attention and even a minimal level of quality output.

Distracting Habits to Avoid

So it should be clear that we owe it to ourselves to try and simplify our work habits. Instead of checking our e-mail as we work on that school assignment, we'd be better off shutting our e-mail off until we finish the paper. This will enable us to give our full attention to our writing, thus producing something of better quality in less time. Do one thing at a time, and do it well.

Some habits I'm trying to break in terms of work efficiency:

Just being aware of these bad habits has helped me become a lot more productive. Setting aside a distinct and specific time to work, during which all distractions are eliminated, helps get me in the mindset of focusing on my projects. Exercising this kind of focus does take discipline, but the payoff is huge and gives you time to relax and really enjoy it.

Do you have any other strategies for getting work done? Please share in the comments.

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