I am addicted to email.
Actually, I don’t really like email all that much. Mostly, I’m addicted to checking email, to receiving that surprise invitation or the much anticipated response to something I’ve written. Recently, when I submitted a book proposal around to several publishers, I was checking email in record frequency.
The same is true of Facebook: the social media I love to hate. Sure, Facebook has its benefits. I regularly communicate with friends and family using the medium. But that’s often not why I check it. It’s become more of a bad habit, a quick fix when my mind gets tired or stuck. And what if someone send me a direct message or tagged me in a photo or commented on one of my posts? Well, I better just go check …
Okay, I’m back. And though it took me less than the 23 minutes and 15 seconds one researcher says it takes to refocus on the task at hand after an interruption, it was an interruption that could have been avoided. According to Olivia Goldhill in a recent Quartz article, “taskswitching” or what we once thought was multitasking is not only causing us to become less productive, less focused, and more bored (okay, I added that one), it’s also exhausting us.
“That switching comes with a biological cost that ends up making us feel tired much more quickly than if we sustain attention on one thing,” says Daniel Levitin, professor of behavioral neuroscience at McGill University, who was quoted in that Quartz article. “People eat more, they take more caffeine. Often what you really need in that moment isn’t caffeine, but just a break. If you aren’t taking regular breaks every couple of hours, your brain won’t benefit from that extra cup of coffee.”
Lately, I’ve looked at myself in the mirror and thought, “Boy, I look tired.” I feel that way, too, which is surprising, since I’m just coming off of a vacation and have actually gotten a little more sleep the past few nights to combat a sore throat. But guess what, my level of distractibility and task-switching continues to soar, and if science is right, it’s probably to blame for the glazed look in my eyes.
It shouldn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out the answer: do one thing at a time and then take a break before starting something else. And in fact, it wasn’t a brain surgeon who made the recommendation. It was a brain scientist. Several of them. According to Goldhill, a Stanford study recommends taking a 15-minute break every two hours or so. Fast Company reported that researchers from the Draugiem Group found that working 52 minutes and then taking a 17-minute break allows for optimal productivity. Inc. drew from several recent studies to recommend a 15-20 minute break every 50-90 minutes. Then there’s always the Pomodoro Technique, which prescribes a 5-minute break after 25 minutes of focused work.
Couple this idea of regularly scheduled breaks with the concept of batching, where you combine similar tasks and do them all in one chunk of time (like checking email!), and you have a recipe for greater productivity and fewer dark circles.
At least that’s what I’m hoping. I’ve known about this research for a while, and I’ve experimented with it here and there. But now it’s time to try harder. Maybe you need to as well?
Our bodies, minds, and to-do lists will thank us.