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Productivity in a pandemic: The secrets to curbing distraction

For some people, productivity has soared since the pandemic because they no longer commute, or they’ve been able to personalise their WFH environment. For others, such as parents or students working in their family home, COVID-19 has had a highly detrimental impact on their ability to tick things off the to-do-list.

One study highlights the extent of our susceptibility to distraction. The authors found that the mere presence of a phone can divert our attention, whilst other research has revealed that it only takes a 3-second interruption to double the number of mistakes we make at work.

Perhaps most compelling is the recent finding from Harvard’s Human Flourishing Program. In a large sample of 3,258 employees, they found that sick days resulted in an estimated loss of $16 million per year, but this pales into insignificance compared with the estimated $307 million resulting from distraction.

So, here we present some of the key research on productivity and advise on how you can make the most of your working day in lockdown…

Crafting a distraction-free environment: Tap into ancestral preferences

While our surroundings have greatly evolved, we still share many primitive internal mechanisms with our ancestors. They were highly attuned to temperature, noise, setting and light and it’s therefore important that we do the same.

Light: “Mankind has evolved under the ebb and flow of daylight in darkness” (Schlangen, 2010) but few of us consider the role of lighting in productivity.

Indeed, many perceive cooler lighting as conducive to a productive working environment, but we actually need warmer hues as well. Soak up the ever-changing natural light from a window or switch things up throughout the day with a cool white ceiling light and warm white desk lamp. There are even smart bulbs available where you can control the light temperature from your phone!

Temperature: Grab a blanket, open a window or adjust the heating if you notice your concentrating waning. 

From the heatwave of July 2020 to the looming Beast of the East in February 2021, we’re exposed to extreme climate fluctuations. David Shipworth of UCL’s Energy Institute suggests that 22C is optimum for productivity but, interestingly, it depends on the task. Studies show that warmer environments spark creativity whereas alertness thrives in cooler conditions. Regaining focus after a dip in concentration may simply involve tweaking your workspace temperature.

Setting: We know that working opposite a window boosts productivity, but it’s easy to dismiss this tip unless we know why this is so effective.

It satisfies a concept known as ‘refuge and prospect’. This refers to the idea that humans are comfortable with their backs against the wall and a view to the door or window because it increases our sense of safety. Even a photo of scenery on your desk can reduce blood pressure and the circulation of stress hormones, thus paving the way for a productive day.

Sound: Nature sounds are the perfect remedy to offset the common WFH backing track of car horns, children playing and next door’s barking dog.

A study by the Acoustical Society of America found that nature sounds improve both mood and productivity, which further research argued is because it increases our outward-directed attention. This is when we focus on others and the world rather than ourselves, which is known as inward-directed attention and is associated with depression/anxiety. Tune into playlists like Spotify’s Nature Sounds to hear birds chirping, waves crashing, and wind whistling, or even Peaceful Piano or Deep Focus which offer alternative focus-friendly music. 

Fostering a productivity mindset: Job crafting

Job crafting involves reflecting on your work environment with the aim of improving work-engagement. This includes structuring tasks so they’re less tedious, finding purpose in the work and improving social relationships. Its bottom-up approach means anyone can engage in job crafting because it only relies on harnessing the existing freedom within your role.

Mono-task: “Multi-tasking is not humanely possible,” says neuroscientist Earl Miller. We do it because it makes us feel emotionally satisfied and gives us a (false) sense of effectiveness.

So, every evening write down your tasks for the next day and then talk them through with a colleague, friend or partner. This forces you to think through the task in more detail and keeps you accountable. Half the work is already done, so it feels more achievable by the next morning. Make each goal crystal clear as this will help you get into ‘flow state’ – peak productivity.

Prioritise tough tasks: Leading with the hardest task will increase your perception that you can achieve the other tasks.

An individual’s belief in their capacity to perform a behaviour is known as self-efficacy and is at the core of behaviour change. Completing a challenging task will energise you and reduce procrastination the next time something similar crops up. Pushing yourself in this way will also result in greater perseverance.

Take breaks: Having a rest between tasks is not slacking; it’s the perfect balance of self-compassion and self-improvement.

Our concentration drops after roughly 30 minutes, but we still berate ourselves for getting distracted and end up feeling demotivated. However, techniques which factor in breaks, such as the Pomodoro method (25 minutes work, 5 minutes break) account for the brain’s natural cycles of focus. They also enhance motivation by instilling a sense of urgency to progress as far as possible until the next break. More crucially, these techniques replace the self-blame that usually ensues after periods of distraction with self-kindness.

 

References:

Acoustical Society of America (ASA). 2015. Natural sounds improve mood and productivity. ScienceDaily [online] Available at: www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/05/150519151217.htm

Altmann, E. M., Trafton, J. G. & Hambrick, D. Z. (2014). Momentary interruptions can derail the train of thought. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143(1), 215–226.

Ariga, A & Lleras, A. 2010. Brief and rare mental “breaks” keep you focused: Deactivation and reactivation of task goals pre-empt vigilance decrements. Cognition 118(3) 439-443.

Boyes, A. 2021. A simple trick to boost your productivity. Psychology Today [online] Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/in-practice/202101/simple-trick-boost-your-productivity

Cassandra D. Gould van Praag, Sarah N. Garfinkel, Oliver Sparasci, Alex Mees, Andrew O. Philippides, Mark Ware, Cristina Ottaviani, Hugo D. Critchley. 2017. Mind-wandering and alterations to default mode network connectivity when listening to naturalistic versus artificial sounds. Scientific Reports 7.

Gorvett, Z. 2016. The never-ending battle of the best office temperature. BBC. [online] Available at: https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20160617-the-never-ending-battle-over-the-best-office-temperature

Korkki, P. How to make the most of your workday. New York Times Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/guides/business/how-to-improve-your-productivity-at-work

Schlangen, L. J. M. 2010. White paper: The role of lighting in promoting well-being and recovery within healthcare. Philips [online] Available at: https://www.itdoes.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Role-of-lighting-published-by-philips-as-a-white-paper-2010.pdf

Taylor, I. 2020. 10 science-backed tips to help you work from home successfully. Science Focus [online] https://www.sciencefocus.com/the-human-body/wfh-sos-how-to-work-from-home-successfully-during-lockdown/

Thornton, B., Faires, A., Robbins, M. & Rollins, E. 2014. The mere presence of a cell phone may be distracting: Implications for attention and task performance. Social Psychology, 45(6), 479–488. 

Wildrich, L. 2012. What multitasking foes to our brains. Lifehacker. [online] Available at: https://lifehacker.com/what-multitasking-does-to-our-brains-5922453

Vander Weele, T. 2021. Focus and flourishing at work. Psychology Today [online] Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/human-flourishing/202101/focus-and-flourishing-work