Science

The one trick that can help you deal with interruptions at work, according to science

Researchers reveal what you can do to overcome the brain fog that comes from switching between multiple tasks.

Getting constantly interrupted at work can make it hard to focus on the task at hand, but scientists believe they may have an answer to the problem.

New research suggests the secret to overcoming the mental fog that comes from switching between multiple jobs is having a plan prepared in advance for resuming work.

According to the researchers, a “ready-to-resume plan” makes it easier to switch between tasks and deal with “attention residue” – which is a result of “continuing to worry and think about the last work when you need to pivot fully to the new task”.

Sophie Leroy from the University of Washington Bothell School of Business said: “We have to proactively manage the way we transition between tasks to help our attention be more focused and less distracted or divided among everything we have on our plate.

“The ready-to-resume plan is one simple way to help when dealing with frequent interruptions.

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“In doing so, we actually also help the person who interrupts – because we will be more present in that interaction and our input will be of higher quality.”

For example, if an urgent matter lands on the desk that requires immediate attention, the researchers advise making a quick checklist of “where to resume, what challenges are left, and/or what actions (you) must postpone but resume later”.

Even a minute’s work will do to note where you left off, they add.

The team monitored 202 working professionals who were asked to switch between two different tasks.

Using a word association test, the researchers found that the workers were still thinking about their original task even after they had switched to a new one, causing the second task to suffer as a result.

Switching between multiple tasks can make it difficult to be productive
Switching between multiple tasks can make it difficult to be fully productive (Lauren Hurley/PA)

Further experiments on 110 people, who were asked to break off from a task to review a stack of CVs before going back to the first task, found those who had a “ready-to-resume plan” in place were able to remember more details from the CVs they read when they switched back again.

The experiments focused on the performance of the second task and did not analyse whether the plan improved performance on the first task when participants returned to it, the researchers said.

Dr Leroy said: “What I show is that people who have done the ready-to-resume plan make better decisions, and recall more information from those resumes that they just read.

“It’s an improvement in performance, both in quality of information retained and in the ability to make decisions with complex information.”

The research is published in Organization Science.

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