Sometimes, I dream of being able to focus on one thing and complete a single task before I move on to something else. The problem is, there is always something competing for my attention. Interruptions are inevitable, but there are some simple steps that we can take to improve our focus.
According to some research, the average worker is interrupted once every 11 minutes. Once we’ve been interrupted, it takes an average of 23 minutes1 to get back to the original task. Perhaps more worryingly, a 2014 study2 found that task error rates doubled after a 2.8-second interruption; about the time it takes to pick up your phone and glance at the notifications, even if you don’t read them.
The cost of interruptionEvidence suggests1 that we are quite good at compensating for the time lost to an interruption, by working harder and faster, but this comes at the cost of:
- Increases in frustration
- A heightened sense of time pressure
- More stress
Work smarter, not just harder
If we could find a way to work smarter, not just harder, we could get more done, in less time, and feel less frustrated in the process. I created a simple 5-step process to help you achieve this aim.
Step 1: Prioritise
Begin by creating a task-list. Start with a ‘to-do’ list, but take it one step further and rank the list you create in order of importance, then add a second indicator to identify which tasks will benefit from focussed, uninterrupted time. For this exercise, prioritise the most important tasks which also require the most focus.
Step 2: Peak
Cognitive performance can vary by about 20% during the average day3. Pay attention to when you feel at your best, and most focussed. For many people this is in the morning, but whatever the case, commit to block two-hours of focussed time, to coincide with your peak period, one day per week. If you’d like to read more about synchronising your work with you peak periods, and approaching your work as a ‘cognitive endurance activity’, you may find this article useful.
Step 3: Pomodoro
The Pomodoro technique is a time-management method from the 1980s. You can think of it as interval training for your brain. Work is divided into 25-minute blocks of focus (each called a Pomodoro), followed by a short break of around 5 minutes. Aim to complete 4 x 25-minute uninterrupted blocks during your peak period, with each block focussed on a priority task. Create a check-box for each block, so you can enjoy a sense of achievement when you tick them off.
Step 4: Protect
You must protect your 25-minute Pomodoro’s by eliminating sources of distraction and interruption, if possible. Put on some noise-cancelling headphones, turn off notifications, shut down social media apps and even switch off your Wifi, providing you don’t need it for your priority focus tasks.
Step 5: Progress
Perfectionism is paralysing, and often leads to procrastination, rather than focus. Before you begin your 2-hour focus time, set your mindset and commit to aiming for progress, not perfection.
I encourage you to do your own experiment, and try out this method, at least once this week. You might surprise yourself with what you’re capable of. If you follow these simple steps each time you need to focus, you’ll be on track to work smarter, not harder, get more done, in less time and perform at your best, with less stress.
- Mark G, Daniela G, Klocke U. The Cost of Interrupted Work: More Speed and Stress. CHI ’08 Proc SIGCHI Conf Hum Factors Comput Syst [Internet]. 2008;107–10. Available from: https://www.ics.uci.edu/~gmark/chi08-mark.pdf
- Altmann EM, Trafton JG, Hambrick DZ. Momentary interruptions can derail the train of thought. J Exp Psychol Gen. 2014;143(1):215–26.
- Hines CB. Time-of-Day Effects on Human Performance. Cathol Educ A J Inq Pract. 2004;7(3):390–413.