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PsychNotes March 2016

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March 22, 2016       

Improving Performance by Mindfully Reducing Self-interruptions

by Monica A. Frank, Ph.D.
multitasking desk One of the greatest mass delusions of our Type A culture is the so-called benefits of multitasking. As much as people want to believe otherwise, attempts at multitasking does not lead to improved performance or greater success. Instead, the opposite is true. Multitasking is actually a disruption of one task to focus on another and then switching back to the first task. Each time a person switches from one task to another they lose time that could have been used to perform the task. The amount of time can vary from person to person and task to task but the result is the same: performance declines.

One type of multitasking is self-interruptions. Although most people recognize that external interruptions (phone call, knock at the door) can be disruptive to concentration and focus, almost half of interruptions are self-induced. In other words, when a person is involved in a task, they interrupt themselves by checking social media, responding to texts, getting a cup of coffee, etc. Although certain tasks (simple but mental energy consuming) can be performed better when short attention breaks are taken, the performance on complex tasks is likely to decrease with such breaks in attention.

Research shows that the decision to self-interrupt occurs several seconds before stopping one task and focusing on another (Katidioti, et al., 2014). This indicates that if self-interruption causes a performance problem, a person could develop awareness of the decision and choose otherwise. It is not automatic. When you are working and suddenly switch your attention to checking social media it is not an unconscious, automatic decision. You are taking several seconds to consciously make the decision. Therefore, it is a habit that can be changed, if desired.

Try the following to reduce self-interruptions:

1) Mindfully focus on the task. When a thought disruptive to your task occurs, gently refocus back to your task.

2) Assess the interruption. If the thought persists, determine if the interruption is necessary or if it only delays the current task. If it is a delay tactic, allow yourself to gently refocus back to the task.

3) Reward yourself. Plan breaks for appropriate times as a reward. This allows you to be in control of your breaks rather than letting the self-interruptions be automatic.

Katidioti, I., Borst, J.P. and Taatgen, N.A. (2014). What Happens When We Switch Tasks: Pupil Dilation in Multitasking. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 20, 380–396. DOI: 10.1037/xap0000031


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