I’ll just check social media real quick. Oooh, this rabbit hole looks interesting! Oh no, my desk is quite dusty, where’s a cloth? I haven’t checked the news yet this morning, I should check the news. Need coffee, too. I’ll just scroll through TikTok while I wait for the kettle to boil. Hm, are these socks clean-ish? I should put a load of laundry on.
Sound familiar? (It does to me.)
Distractions are everywhere, and they are the enemy of research. Our work as researchers is often deep thinking work – it requires focus and momentum, and it’s hard to just ‘dip’ in and out as distractions surface and recede.
It’s easy to think of distraction as a recent problem – and for sure the internet, social media, and streaming services can lure us away from our work like the sirens of Greek mythology. But distraction has been an enduring problem for researchers, scientists, and thinkers long before screens dominated our workdays. Franz Kafka wrote at night to avoid the hustle and bustle of early 20th Century Prague; Charles Darwin credited much of his scientific success to the antisocial nature of his gastrointestinal problems; and the Greek orator Demosthenes shaved off half his hair to discourage himself from leaving the social isolation of his workstation (BBC, n.d.).
Distraction is human. It’s part of how our brains operate. We live and work in environments filled with sensory information (e.g. sights, sounds, smells), and our brains must inevitably navigate that information; even during periods of intense work. Perhaps we’re feeling very disciplined and we ‘ignore’ our distractions. As Gazzaley & Rosen argue in their book The Distracted Mind, even the act of ignoring that sensory information uses our mental resources (p.56). And that’s the best-case scenario.
More likely, our attention is pulled between multiple activities (reading a paper while a child asks us questions; or writing in between answering emails). In those cases, we might try to multitask. But our brains cannot ‘parallel process’ complex tasks. Rather, they do what neuroscientists call ‘network switching’ – and the effect is that “this act of switching, whether we make the decision to switch or not, diminishes our performance on tasks” (Gazzaley & Rosen, p.62).
Add the very modern challenges of digital distractions into the mix, and you have a recipe for poor research productivity.
Oh, and there’s more bad news. A growing body of research indicates that, when learning, we can prioritize what is most important to recall – but the higher priority the learning, the more susceptible it is to disruption (Allen & Ueno, 2018; Mallett & Lewis-Peacock, 2019). In other words, it appears that when you know your task is important, distractions impact it more.
So distractions = bad for researchers. No big surprises there. But what can you do to minimise your distractions and maximise your focus? Here’s an evidence-based round-up of suggestions.
Exercise your cognitive control
Gazzaley & Rosen note that you can effectively ‘train’ your brain to resist distractions and boost your powers of focus. They suggest a number of potential ways to do this, including meditation, exposure to nature, and brain-training exercises, among others. But the one method they rank above all others is physical exercise (pp.203-4). This is well-supported in the literature on attention – in fact Popovich & Staines found that “an acute bout of moderate intensity aerobic exercise potentially assisted involuntary shifts of attention toward and away from distractors in the environment” (2015). In other words, physical exercise could help supercharge your brain to resist distractions even when you’re not consciously trying to. So next time you’re feeling mentally susceptible to every distraction, a short bout of fast walking could be enough to bring your focus back.
Understand & limit digital distractions
Anthonysamy, Choo & Hin (2020) propose a three-pronged framework for reducing digital distractions. Firstly, we must understand our own behaviour and goals; or as the authors put it, “the first step in minimizing digital distraction is to self-reflect the reasons behind the distraction” (p.3). Secondly, we must regulate our behaviour by observing and judging our own actions. Thirdly, we must regulate our digital environment. On this last count, technology can be the solution to its own problem. It can help immensely to set aside an hour to adjust settings across your devices to minimise distractions. Set your email account/s not to ‘ping’ with every new message. Set your phone to limit or block unnecessary notifications. My personal favourite tactic is to set daily time limits on certain addictive apps. All these little steps can add up to a less distracting digital environment.
Know when to (and when NOT to) multitask
Multitasking (or alternating between tasks) may feel productive, but neuroscientists tends to report that it isn’t a good idea for complex tasks. According Gazzaley & Rosen, there is a cognitive “resumption lag” involved in resuming an interrupted activity; and there is also increased stress when multiple tasks compete for our attention (2016, p.162). That doesn’t mean that all multitasking is bad; just that it’s best limited to low-complexity (or low-stakes) tasks. Listening to a reading of an academic paper while cooking dinner might work well if the paper is peripheral or of low-to-moderate significance to your research. But if the paper is central to your work? Stop and read it when you have the time to give it your full attention.