Thanks to the virus and its economic consequences, we're wracked with fear about the future. Thanks to being locked down at home with loved ones (and a Netflix subscription), finding distraction-free time to work is difficult. The result is many of us bouncing between Zoom calls to toddler tantrums throughout the day.
Anxiety and distractibility might seem like two separate aspects of post-pandemic life, but recently published research suggests that all the constant multitasking many of have resorted to while working from home might actually be making our stress and fear worse.
Multitasking is making you sad and scared.
To investigate the effects of interruptions on workers, the team behind the research monitored volunteers' faces using a specialized emotion-detecting algorithm as they tried to complete a writing task. These volunteers were divided into two groups. One worked through a batch of emails before they started writing. The other was periodically interrupted with emails requiring their attention while they worked.
What did their facial expressions reveal about their emotions? You might think a constantly pinging inbox would simply be annoying, but the researchers didn't primarily observe anger or frustration on the faces of the multitasking volunteers. Instead, they looked sad.
"Individuals who engaged in multitasking appeared significantly sadder than those who did not. Interestingly, sadness tended to mix with a touch of fear in the multitasking cohort," reported the study's senior author, Ioannis Pavlidis of the University of Houston. There was one small caveat: Volunteers with very high levels of neuroticism weren't bothered by the interruptions as much, possibly because the anxiety of not checking email was worse for the biggest worrywarts.
Why this mix of sadness and fear for all but the most neurotic? The sadness is a consequence of the heavy mental load of constantly switching tasks, Pavlidis explains. The fear is probably our faces registering our dread of the next interruption.
All of which would be no big deal if interruptions were just an occasional annoyance. A problem only arises when interruptions are constant, raising our levels of anxiety and sadness throughout the day and changing the overall "climate" of our work. But unfortunately, distractions are pretty much continuous for many of us at the moment.
Batch your tasks to improve your mood.
This research wasn't focused on lockdown life, but the implications for those of us stuck working from home where kids and others distractions abound seem obvious. The heavy mental toll of all your task switching is probably making your anxiety and mood worse.
Luckily, there are some actions you can take. Batching emails worked to reduce anxiety and sadness in the study and, to whatever extent it is possible to pull off in your life, will probably reduce your stress levels too. Batching work and home tasks to give you unbroken blocks of time to focus on one or the other would likely help too, though it may be hard to convince your 5-year-old of the merits of this solution.
Whatever arrangement you can pull off to limit distractions won't just help you get more done. This research suggests it will also likely help you feel less sad and scared during this incredibly trying time.