How often does your attention wander at work due to interruption? According to one study by Gloria Mark, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, workers spend on average only 10 minutes and 30 seconds on a task before being interrupted.
While a slight majority of the interruptions (56 percent) are from an external source, self-interruption happens a whopping 44 percent of the time.
Self-interruption fundamentally involves abandoning a task prior to completion by changing your focus to a different task. Its primary attribute is that the interruption is driven by your own multitasking, rather than being prompted by an external event or person.
Some of the most common self-interruption behaviors include stopping what you are doing to capture an idea, thought, or to-do; doing something you just realized you forgot; following a random stream of links when researching on the net; or watching a video on YouTube and eating something.
"It takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds for people to return to the original task after being interrupted," says Mark. "And 40 percent of the time, workers don't return to their original task at all, but instead wander off in a new direction."
So how can you keep yourself from interrupting yourself? Try these five simple strategies.
Create calendar blocks.
One of the best ways to stop interrupting yourself is to block out a specific period of time to work on a particular project. Blocks of between 15 and 30 minutes work well since they are long enough to get something done, but short enough to put your mind at ease when other items start to nag at it.
Use a timer.
Along with putting aside dedicated calendar time, one of the many timer apps available will help you stick to one thing at a time. I personally like the Pomodoro app and technique, which gives you short bursts of time to work, with alternating breaks, and then tracks your overall progress on both a specific project and your focus tolerance.
Keep a pad of paper and a pen handy. In the event that a random thought, forgotten to-do, or Nobel Prize-winning idea does pop into your head, don't panic. Just jot it down on a piece of paper.
Why paper? By avoiding your phone or computer, you steer clear of the electronic interruptions that can pop up.
Do things to build up your attention span.
If you find that your ability to focus has diminished in direct proportion to your use of social media and the internet, create a counter-balance by reading a physical book or going off social media for a week to build up your tolerance for focus.
Plan your hardest tasks for later in the day.
One study by Victor Gonzalez from Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo in Mexico did an analysis of 889 hours of observed task-switching behavior from individuals across three high-technology information-work organizations and found that time of day was significantly associated with interruption rates.
"Informants interrupted themselves more often the earlier it was in the day and less often as the day progressed," says Gonzalez.
If you do find yourself slipping and self-interrupting, the goal is to get back on task as quickly as possible. Certainly, sooner than the 23 minutes Mark's research showed it usually takes. Once you have recognized you're off the focus train, get yourself back on track ASAP. Chances are, you will make it to your destination sooner, rather than later.