A person interrupted during a task takes 50% more time to complete the task and makes 50% more errors.
This finding was reported in David Brooks’ excellent book ‘The Social Animal’. He explores all aspects of social, developmental, experimental psychology through the eyes of two normal people going through their lives. I highly recommend this book if you are interested in human behaviour.
The statement above is a reflection of the challenging working environment, modern levels of interruption and has very good grounding in the way our brains work.
We know there that there are more things to do in the day than we have time to do. Especially at work, there are always more demands on our time, lots of interruptions and the constant stream of emails. How many people have a sound or screen pop-up notification whenever they receive an email? This means that you will be slightly distracted by the possibility of what that email says, so you go into your emails and check. And now you have lost the flow of what you were doing.
I, like most people, have a Twitter account, Linkedin account, Facebook account, two email accounts and I love playing Words with Friends. So that immediately gives me at least 6 methods of distraction or procrastination. This week I had to do my usual tax returns to my accountant, but what did I do when I sat down to do it? Read twitter, caught up on my Words with Friends, checked Facebook and then that lost me an hour.
The brain needs coherent flow to get all the networks firing. We think that because we can trace back, in reverse order, how we came to a thought. That thinking is in our control and that it is linear. It is not. Our brains are a huge network of memories, experiences and knowledge. In order to get them to connect up, the brain needs flow to allow the thoughts to emerge, in the way they do.
Puzzle solving has been tested in an EEG brain scanner. Researchers found that Alpha waves (generated by the occipital lobe and key to network coordination and communication) jump in your brain about 8 seconds before you solve the puzzle. This is probably that experience of having cracked something, now you just need to work out the solution itself. It is called precognition.
One second before the solution pops into your head, the visual cortex shuts down to close out any distractions. 300 milliseconds before the insight there is a spike in Gamma rhythm, which are the highest frequency brainwaves. Then there is a burst of activity in the right temporal lobe, just above your right ear, and this area is known to draw pieces of information together from wildly different parts of the brain.
So this is happening in your brain. And it need times and concentration to access all of the vast networks that you have in your hard drive. Creativity comes when two galaxies of information merge together in space. Two perspectives on the world, where each provide insights into the other. Like my last blog on Exercise and Work.
Thinking clearly requires network-type thinking, allowing the thoughts to emerge, which needs flow and focus.
Any kind of distraction will cause your brain to lose the connecting thread that can lead to great thinking. While writing this blog, I have only picked up my phone once. And on opening it, of course, I see all the little read numbers showing that I have mails, notifications and mentions. Delaying the gratification of checking what they all are has meant that I can finish this writing 50% quicker and clearer. Now I can spend 10 minutes trying to plan my next move on Words with Friends…