Imagine you are in the middle of trying to resolve a problem with a project that is due by the end of the day. Your desk phone rings and it is your supervisor who wants you to check on the status of another group’s project. Your mind then has to switch gears from the current project to the previous project. While this interrupting task may only take a few minutes to complete, finding the momentum, the exact “place” you were in your thought processes on the current project may take even longer; as much as 30 minutes.1 Not only that, but the quality of work may have suffered due to the interruption in mental energy, creativity, and stymy the overall mental as well as physical work flow.2
Reports show that numerous interruptions occur throughout the course of most of our workdays.3 We have come to expect them, and in some ways, we are conditioned to them.4 How many times have you questioned yourself about starting a task if you knew there was a meeting scheduled within the next hour or two? You wonder what is the point of getting started if you are just going to have to stop. Having your thought process interrupted while working on a project, purchase order, or even an office memo is like leaving a television show mid-point and coming back to it in a few hours. You need to rewind to remind yourself of what was happening so the rest of the show makes sense. Unfortunately, we do not have that capability, therefore we lose time, energy, and experience an overall reduction in productivity. 5
How Collaboration Can Actually Impede Flow and Reduce Productivity
As an increasing number of work environments encourage or even require collaboration. Whether collaborations take place online with tools like SLACK, or face to face, collaboration means depending upon other people’s time, punctuality, and work ethic; all of which can lead to built in wasted time, or as social psychologist term it, social loafing. Social loafing is what occurs when two or more people are involved on a project. Studies show that the more people involved, the less shared responsibility and productivity.6 It is a mindset that is almost inevitable and anyone who remembers group projects from their high school years can well remember that in a group of four or five, one or two did the bulk of the work.
Generally, there is a lead member assigned to a project. That lead will find that the work flow, time, attention, and productivity will be much more efficient if the work is looked at in segments, rather than the whole. Therefore, one way to combat built in wasted time is to provide each team member or pair of members a specific task with a hard deadline.7 All too often when there is a deadline for a complete project, people tend to look at that projected date which could be weeks or even months down the road often forgetting that there are parts of a project that must be completed along the way to completion. In order to ensure that each part of the project is in progress toward its deadline, check-ins and status reports are a means of keeping team members accountable for their time.8
Maximizing Breaks Through Self-Care
Another problem with mental energy and flow is that many work spaces that do not require direct monitoring of systems or people allow for flexible breaks. For the naturally disciplined, these work out well, but those who lack personal discipline may actually find themselves wasting breaktime to where they feel the need for another break in a short while.9 It is important to not only have routine breaks,10 but also to make sure you are using that time to take care of your physical as well as mental well-being.11
The bathroom break needs to become a personal time break. If breaks are 10-15 minutes, a portion of that time of course will be devoted to bodily needs – the bathroom portion of the break- and the other part should be devoted to mental well-being. Take lunch out. Studies show that a 20-minute walk in the open air, looking at a scenic view, or practicing deep breathing can help to increase mental energy.12 Deep breathing is something that anyone can do at any time This practice supports deep focus on the self, and circulates oxygen through the body and to the brain.13 A well-oxygenated brain is a better functioning and focused brain.
Screen-time and Brain Drain
A caveat to taking built in personal breaks is that many take this time to check in on others rather than themselves. Home, friends, social media, the news, even games designed to increase mental energy,14 are often drains on our mental energy and our time.15 A few minutes absorbed in screen time “catching up” on the outside world often means a loss of self-care, and can be more mentally exhausting than work.16 Additionally, some may even find it more difficult to resume a task after spending even a few minutes checking their social media.17
Strategies for Practicing Self-Care at Work
- Block off times on your work calendar. Request all non-emergent calls be sent to voicemail.
- Request that co-workers and even supervisors send an email for issues that are non-emergent.
- Flag emails, and set up task list with alerts.
- If you work in a personal office – close your door.
- If you work in a cubicle listen to ambient noise through your earbuds – turn off all non-business-related notifications.
- Take scheduled self-care breaks
- Practice deep breathing
- Take in a pleasant view
- Take a short walk in the open air
- Can’t take a walk outdoors? Open a window or door to the outside and breathe in fresh air.
- Use a diffuser with essential oils that promote mental energy and focus.
- Take off your shoes and flex your feet and legs.
- Take stand breaks. Standing once every 15-20 minutes increases blood and oxygen flow to the brain and throughout the body.18
- Stay hydrated – drink water, tea, or other clear, non-carbonated liquids.
- Reduce sugar and high carb foods.19
- Snack on proteins and low sugar fruits throughout the day.
- When you leave the office, leave the office behind. Those who take their work home often find themselves resentful of lost personal time at home. Note: Time well-used at work reduces the necessity or at least amount of work that is taken home.
Interruptions are a part of life. They disrupt our mental energy and workflow, but there are steps we can take on a personal level as well as implementing changes conducive to our overall workspaces to improve our focus and reduce extraneous distractions. Everyone in the work environment can benefit from minimized interruptions and the practice of breaks devoted to self-care.
- This Is Nuts: It Takes Nearly 30 Minutes to Refocus After You Get Distracted. (2017). Available at: https://www.themuse.com/advice/this-is-nuts-it-takes-nearly-30-minutes-to-refocus-after-you-get-distracted.
- Neuroscience: The brain, interrupted : Nature News & Comment. Available at: https://www.nature.com/news/neuroscience-the-brain-interrupted-1.16831.
- Work interruptions can cost you 6 hours a day. An efficiency expert explains how to avoid them. – The Washington Post. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/inspired-life/wp/2015/06/01/interruptions-at-work-can-cost-you-up-to-6-hours-a-day-heres-how-to-avoid-them/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.b33fa9eff664.
- How Distractions At Work Take Up More Time Than You Think. I Done This Blog (2015). Available at: http://blog.idonethis.com/distractions-at-work/.
- Interruptions at work are killing your focus, productivity, and motivation. RescueTime Blog (2018). Available at: https://blog.rescuetime.com/interruptions-at-work/.
- Social Loafing: When Groups Are Bad for Productivity – PsyBlog. Available at: https://www.spring.org.uk/2009/05/social-loafing-when-groups-are-bad-for-productivity.php.
- Schneider, T. van. The psychological theory that explains why you’re better off working solo. Quartz Available at: https://qz.com/848267/the-ringelmann-effect-productivity-increases-when-youre-working-solo-rather-than-on-a-team/. (Accessed: 20th April 2019)
- Moon, L. The Secret To Removing Social Loafing From The Workplace. Available at: https://blog.trello.com/avoid-social-loafing.
- Wasting Time At Work: The Epidemic Continues. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/cherylsnappconner/2015/07/31/wasting-time-at-work-the-epidemic-continues/#40efecb81d94.
- Gentile, P., Gentile, P. & Gentile, P. How to work at peak productivity–and know when to take a break. Fast Company (2019). Available at: https://www.fastcompany.com/90299580/how-to-work-at-peak-productivity-and-know-when-to-take-a-break.
- The Science of Breaks at Work: Change Your Thinking About Downtime. Open (2014).
- Publishing, H. H. Need a quick brain boost? Take a walk. Harvard Health Available at: https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/need-a-quick-brain-boost-take-a-walk.
- The Health Benefits of Deep Breathing: 9 Ways it Supercharges Your Body and Mind. (2018). Available at: https://www.consciouslifestylemag.com/benefits-of-breathing-deeply/.
- Can Brain Training Be Brain Draining? | Psychology Today. Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/metacognition-and-the-mind/201410/can-brain-training-be-brain-draining-0.
- Study: Engaging With Social Media Can Drain Your Brain. Psychology Today Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/neuronarrative/201606/study-engaging-social-media-can-drain-your-brain.
- Screen Time, the Brain, Privacy and Mental Health. Centre for International Governance Innovation Available at: https://www.cigionline.org/articles/screen-time-brain-privacy-and-mental-health.
- Paul, K. This is how long it takes to get regain your concentration after texting on your iPhone. MarketWatch Available at: https://www.marketwatch.com/story/how-your-smartphone-could-be-ruining-your-career-2017-03-31.
- CNN, C. S., Special to. Stand up, sit less, experts say; here’s how to do it. CNN Available at: https://www.cnn.com/2015/08/06/health/how-to-move-more/index.html.
- 7 Foods That Drain Your Energy. Healthline (2018). Available at: https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/foods-that-drain-energy.