Everyone knows that the constant checking of Facebook and other social networks is damaging our productivity, so why do we keep doing it?
Michael Hollauf explains why, and how to stop doing so, in an article for TheNextWeb. Hollauf is currently working at MeisterTask, designing and building an app which intends to keep users on task, and his research reveals that it takes 15 minutes for the human brain to be able to concentrate again after it has been interrupted. So how do we resist distractions such as Facebook in order to maintain our focus on the task in hand?
Multitasking reduces productivity
Scientists have been researching why humans multitask, and how bad it is for our productivity. One study fitted a task tracker to computers in a university study area, and discovered that attention spans are terribly short.
Students themselves estimate that they concentrate on one task for around 5 minutes, which already seems short. However, the task tracker data revealed that students only concentrate on a task for approximately 31 seconds.
The chart below shows schoolwork in blue and social media in red, which shows a worrying typical pattern.
Studying takes up a large proportion of the student’s time, but it is interspersed with regular periods of time spent on Facebook. “Facebook use is a key contributor to and initiator of task switching and multitasking behavior,” said the authors of the study.
So how do we resist our impulse to check Facebook every 31 seconds?
Take advantage of our human laziness
One method is to make it slightly harder to access distracting websites like Facebook. Research shows that we make a conscious effort to avoid switching between tasks, despite the appearance of the chart above. If offered the chance to switch to a new task, 60% of the time we will remain on the original task. In 40% of cases we will switch to a new task.
Human laziness means that we usually try to avoid making the effort to switch tasks, so installing a Facebook blocker in your web browser could actually work wonders for your productivity.
Another tip is to start your day by working on the hardest task on your to do list. Research shows that we are more likely to stay working on a difficult task. As blogger Swizec Teller famously wrote: “working on large abstract systems involves fitting the whole thing into your mind—like constructing a house out of expensive crystal glass. And as soon as someone distracts you, it comes barreling down and shatters into a thousand pieces.”
Instead of ticking off a series of easy tasks and creating the impression of productivity, do everything you can to make a start on the larger, more difficult pieces of work.
Engage with difficult tasks
Another tactic is to create a sense of excitement around the work that needs to be done. The human brain responds well to excitement, and it can even beat our inherent laziness. Easier, but unexciting, tasks will rarely trump a difficult yet engaging piece of work; finishing a challenging article will usually be a more attractive option than cleaning up after your pet, for example.
Those who struggle to stay on task are advised to think consciously about their priorities, as research shows that it is easy to get stuck on Facebook once you start looking at it. The human brain is not great at recognizing priorities, and road traffic accidents provide a good explanation. Once we have been distracted by a notification on social media, our attention remains focused on sending that crucial reply instead of the obviously more important task of maintaining road safety.
The good news is that if we manage to make a start on a priority task, we are more likely to remain focused on it. The biggest piece of advice is to make a start on your more difficult, high-priority work and then do your utmost to reduce distractions.
Disable all but the most important notifications
One way of doing so is to disable notifications on your apps. Research has found that notifications are a major cause of distraction; a visual cue increases the likelihood of switching to this task by 30%, while an accompanying sound adds another 12% to that chance.
Notifications can be blessing if they are used to remind you of your priorities, but for the most part we do not improve our productivity by having a selection of social media and messaging notifications. Select which apps send notifications very carefully, and switch off their sounds to reduce distractions.
Worries over the shortening of the human attention span continue to grow, but these tips should help you to improve your ability to stay on task and reduce the guilt that we have all felt after wasting an hour checking Facebook.