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Don't Interrupt – It Makes Me Stupid Comments Off on Don't Interrupt – It Makes Me Stupid

glasses-385533_640The human brain is an amazing computer, and fantastically capable, but it has its limitations and drawbacks. While it is truly excellent at serial processing, it downright stinks at parallel processing. It's also a bit like my old Dodge pickup truck. It starts up right away, but it takes it a while to really get warmed up and start purring like a kitten.

In practical terms, what that means is that our brains do their best thinking when we focus on one task without interruptions. If we try to multitask, we get distracted, and it can take several minutes to get back on track and working at optimal capacity again. Worse, it literally does make us stupid.

The Science Behind The Stupid

Interruptions making us stupid isn't just idle chatter either; there have been studies conducted that confirm this. At Stanford, researchers broke test subjects into two groups to perform a cognitive study. One group performed various tasks that involved a significant amount of multitasking. The other group did far fewer tasks.

When it came time to take the test that was the culmination of the study, the heavy multi-taskers categorically performed worse and were more easily distracted. They were also less able to discern critical information from trivia.

The Stanford study was backed up by a group of behavioral scientists who broke their test group into thirds. One group performed standard cognitive tests, and the other two performed the same tests, but were informed that they might be contacted via instant message with more instructions. Those two groups were then interrupted twice. Both interrupted groups scored 20% lower on the test than the non interrupted group.

We Are Never Fully Engaged If We Are Being Interrupted

The lesson here is profound, and says some not-very-nice things about our smartphones. They are, after all, the biggest single source of our distraction. They ring when we get a call. They chirp when we get a tweet, they gong or make some other sound when there's a new Facebook post that demands our attention, and we merrily go look at all of those things every single time. Studies indicate that we get interrupted during a typical work day on average about once every eleven minutes. The problem with that is that it can take up to 25 minutes for our brains to come fully online when focusing on a singular task. Which implies that we are never really operating at our full mental capacity at any time during the day, and that's a rather startling thought.

What Can Be Done?

How then, can we arrange our day to be sure that we are less distracted and make better use of our fabulous brains? The first thing you can do to help yourself is to try and schedule some uninterrupted time each day. Just let everybody know that between the hours of X and Y, you're not going to be available, then roll up your mental sleeves and get to it. The second, and this plays into the first, is that when stuff tries to interrupt your uninterrupted time, it all goes into a “parking lot” on your desk. You don't look at it when it first reaches you, it just reflexively gets parked so you can stay on task. Then, at the end of your uninterrupted time, you can start letting the interruptions filter in. Best of all, turn off that phone – but perhaps that is asking just a bit too much of us uber-connected people!