Are distractions making you underperform?

Are distractions making you underperform?

5 ways to build your mental attention

By Thea O'Connor,


In 2005, Dr Glenn Wilson of the University of London Institute of Psychiatry conducted a small 
in-house experiment funded by Hewlett Packard. He found that workers distracted by incoming emails and phone calls experienced a 10-point fall in their IQ.

Fast forward to 2016 and our brains are under siege more than ever before, and the opportunities for distraction, unprecedented. Yet knowledge professionals still struggle to justify and create distraction-free time.

Why not simply hang up a Do Not Disturb sign as needed? Running counter to this common-sense move is a heady mix of the addictive potential of technology, the nature of the mind to wander and the neuroplasticity of the brain, which presents the disturbing possibility that we are shortening our attention spans through constant interruptions. Then there’s the increasingly prevalent affliction of FOMO (fear of missing out) which results in “continuous partial attention’” where our mind is constantly scanning for opportunities, contacts and activities in an effort to miss nothing. 

No wonder our collective will to pay attention seems weak. These undercurrent drives are powerful, which means we can’t leave singular focus – essential to analytical thinking and wise judgement calls – to chance.

Five ways to get serious about reducing distractions

1. Talk to your boss and your colleagues

Workplace norms are powerful and any behaviour that is new or foreign to your workplace culture, needs support and re-enforcement to take hold.

Talk to your boss about the value of minimising distractions to help ensure the quality of your work and suggest raising the issue at a team meeting. Present some of your intended approaches, such as carving out distraction-free time several times a week for the tasks most critical to your role. Ask for his or her approval and support.

2. Reduce temptation

Research conducted last year at the Florida State University found that mobile phone notifications significantly disrupted performance on an attention-demanding task, even when participants did not touch or respond to their mobile device. The probability of making an error increased by 23 per cent in those people who received a text notification, and by 28 per cent for those who heard their phone ring.

Other research has found that the mere presence of a phone on a desk is enough to impair your performance. So unless your phone, email and all other alerts are completely off, and out of sight, they still have the power to hijack your attention, undermine your performance and even your relationships. Out of touch, out of earshot and out of sight.

3. Do the most important task first

About half an hour after waking we experience a surge in the hormone cortisol, which increases mental alertness. Combined with the effect of overnight sleep, and hopefully breakfast, this results in a morning peak in the brain’s capacity to focus, for most healthy people. So don’t waste this precious window.

Identify the night before the most important task to work on then allocate some undivided attention to it first thing in the morning. That means no multi-tasking. When we try to do two things at once, we do them less accurately and/or more slowly. It’s one of the most robust findings of neuroscience ever.

4. Train your attention muscle

Our brain has the miraculous ability to change itself according to how we treat and train the brain over time. The implications of this neuroplasticity are cause for concern and hope.

The potential for our increasingly digitalised lifestyle to shrink our attention spans is very real. The good news is that you can increase your attention span through practice, and mindfulness meditation is one way to do so. "Mindfulness practices help us to micro-manage attention, to sustain attention on-task, to be less impaired by distractor-influences and to be more efficient at attention switching," says Australian pioneer of mindfulness for workplace performance Associate Professor Craig Hassed, Senior Lecturer at the Department of General Practice, Monash University.

5. Prioritise sleep 

The region of the brain responsible for focusing attention and suppressing distracting thoughts is called the pre-frontal cortex. It is especially vulnerable to inadequate sleep.

“If you are tired, or have drunk alcohol, the inhibitory mechanisms that help you resist distractions are not as effective,” says Professor Con Stough from the Swinburne Centre for Human Psychopharmacology.

Research shows that when sleep is restricted to six hours per night or less, for several nights in a row, people suffer from increased lapses in attention during the day, and their thinking becomes slower and less accurate, according to a review of the neurocognitive consequences of sleep deprivation, published in Sleep in Neurological Practice.