In a world full of productivity tools, it seems like many of us feel less productive than ever. What is the problem? Have we lost the ability to focus? In our defense, it seems that people, calls, images, sounds, and vibrations are perpetually popping up, drawing our attention away from the topic at hand. Since we cannot truly think about two things at once, multi-tasking actually requires us to toggle our focus, a practice that undermines our efficiency. Still, not all cessations of concentration are the same. Some actually improve our performance. In order to “up your game,” it is important to know the difference between interruptions, distractions and breaks.
An interruption occurs when an external entity disrupts our attention. Classic examples include:
- A crying child
- An unwelcome conversation
- A ringing phone or an “urgent” text
- A knock at the door
- An accident snarling traffic
- A power failure
- A computer crash
- A fire alarm
The degree to which an interruption interferes with our plans can range from small to enormous. We might be able to silence a phone in a few seconds, but when the school calls because our child has just thrown up, the whole day (or more) can be shot. If you look at the graph below, you can see that the more time an interruption requires, the more detrimental the impact on our productivity will be. Interruptions can quickly snowball, ruining your plans.
Distractions are similar to interruptions, but they are not completely beyond our control. Instead, distractions are diversions that we enter into (at least somewhat) willingly. For instance, we…
- Check our messages
- Check or post on social media
- Check the stock market
- Surf the Internet
- Watch TV
- Brew a cup of coffee
The common ingredient in distractions is that they are not refreshing. They provide release from the tension of the moment, but only temporarily. Distractions redirect our focus off of what we need to accomplish and onto something else. Distractions are often delaying tactics, things we do to put off carrying out the work we need to do. Unfortunately, while they may provide a momentary alleviation of stress or anxiety, they rarely provide fresh insight or new energy.
In the illustration, you see that distractions tend to “nibble away” at our effectiveness. They waste a little time, but since we are still in control, we can break free from them when we choose. Since the brain requires a bit of time to regroup after shifting focus, the productivity curve trends downward. However, the impact of distractions is largely in proportion to the time they are allotted.
In contrast to interruptions and distractions, breaks are intentional and desirable pauses in effort. We take breaks when we mindfully step away from a task for a defined period, with the goal of improving productivity. A break can be:
- Taking a walk
- Going out of the office for lunch
- Taking a power nap
- Meditating or praying
Breaks are not only nice, but also critical for long-term success. Human beings are not machines, but rather living beings. Our energy waxes and wanes, and we need to nourish body, mind and spirit in order to perform up to our highest potential. In the graph below, you see that interruptions temporarily decrease output, but when they are over, they have a positive impact on the productivity curve. In fact, sometimes break periods can actually enhance performance by giving our minds permission to think creatively (read more about that here). Wisely planned, intermittent breaks invigorate us and enhance productivity over time.
[Note: too many breaks, or breaks that last too long, will have the opposite result; we have to do the work. The ratio of break/work needs to be in proper alignment.]
While no one lives in a perfect environment, we are not powerless.
When it comes to interruptions…
… we can cope as best we can, learn where possible, and do whatever is within our power to minimize them going forward.
When it comes to distractions…
… we should acknowledge their negative impact and allow ourselves a only a limited few.
When it comes to breaks…
… we can plan them wisely, and enjoy them fully and without guilt.
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What interruptions and distractions are you most likely to suffer? Do you plan – and then take – time to give yourself a break?