It’s a Sunday afternoon and you’re home with the kids, trying to keep an eye on them while also cramming in a little last-minute work. For a while, all’s quiet and you churn through an assignment. Then, in a BBC dad-esque parade of chaos, your kids file into your office. Arguments need to be settled and random curiosities need to be confirmed. When everything is handled, you head back to work. And while victorious in fatherhood, you’ve lost your train of thought. By the time you get it back, something else inevitably draws you away.
Parenthood is the ultimate exercise in multitasking, one that pits you in a constant battle against distraction. You regularly bounce from one thing to another, a constant recalibration that makes it pretty hard to get work done. This is one of the realities of fatherhood. But, hidden in the science of distraction are some tweaks to make you more efficient.
There’s actually no such thing as focusing on multiple things at the same time — the brain just can’t do it.
Even the most organized people are drawn to distraction. Research conducted by scientists at the University of California Irvine, led by researcher Gloria Mark, found that people in an office setting generally spend only about three minutes on any individual task before either being interrupted or voluntarily switching to something else. People spend more time working on different activities related to the same goal (i.e. talking to colleagues about the project at hand) but even then people average about 11 minutes in the same “working sphere” before switching gears.
It can take a while to get back on track. Mark’s study found that it takes people an average of 23 minutes to resume whatever task they were performing prior to an interruption. That said, scientists have also found that many people tend to work faster after experiencing an interruption. The cost, however, is that they tend to get more stressed out about it, too.
Here’s a not-so-obvious truth: No one is good at multitasking. In fact, the field of neuroscience tells us that there’s actually no such thing as focusing on multiple things at the same time — the brain just can’t do it. Rather, when you think you’re “multitasking,” you’re actually just switching rapidly between multiple tasks. Furthermore, studies have generally suggested that people overestimate their ability to multitask, and that those who’ve switched between too many tasks during the day tend to rate their productivity as lower.
Accepting the inevitable interruptions to come may be the most efficient thing you do all day.
This means that lowering expectations about how many things you can do at one time and deliberately resolving to tackle fewer tasks at once is the first step towards managing distraction. Simple? Sure. But it helps. You might not be able to choose when the kids interrupt your tax-paying with arguments about who got the last Juicy Juice, but you can choose to limit the amount of work you attempt simultaneously.
You also need to keep yourself in check. More research from the University of California Irvine has suggested that, in addition to the distractions that occur outside our control, people tend to self-interrupt by checking, say, email or Instagram when in the middle of a task. This is an issue of discipline, yes. But at least one study has also suggested that external distractions may also make us more likely to self-interrupt. It found that those who work in open offices tend to self-distract more frequently. So, the best way to limit your self-interruptions is to quarantine in a closed-off space.
This is not helpful, because life with kids is chaotic even on the best days. But, as it turns out, accepting this may be the way to up your efficiency. Because simply expecting to be distracted, rather than letting interruptions take us by surprise, lessens your internal lag.
Simply expecting to be distracted, rather than letting interruptions take us by surprise, lessens your internal lag.
In 2013, an op-ed in The New York Times described an experiment run by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, which examined the effect of interruptions on participants ability to perform a task without making mistakes. It demonstrated that participants who experience repeated interruptions — but are told to expect them — actually improve their performance over time. Even more interesting was that the performance of those who were told to expect an interruption but never actually received one improved even more dramatically.
So, on a Sunday afternoon, when all’s quiet in the house and it seems like the perfect time to squeeze in some extra work, be wary. Because accepting the inevitable interruptions to come may be the most efficient thing you do all day.