How disruptions lead to stress and reduced productivity
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How disruptions lead to stress and reduced productivity

How disruptions lead to stress and reduced productivity

Every time we are interrupted by something, such as an email, or we are multitasking, we create anxiety and stress

Constant interruptions, whether they come from people or are electronic, create stress.

Glenn Wilson, a former visiting professor of psychology at King’s College, London University, found that being in a situation where you are trying to concentrate on a task when an email is sitting unread in your inbox can reduce your effective IQ by 10 points.

The research with 1,100 people showed an inability to focus, with emails having an addictive, drug-like grip on respondents. Those in the research group found themselves all over the place every time an email appeared in their inbox. Productivity took an impact as employees could not resist the temptation to dip into messages, taking them away from their actual work.

The most damage occurred as a result of respondents’ complete lack of discipline in how they fielded emails. There was a compulsion to reply to each new message immediately, which distracted the brain and slowed it down from performing other tasks.

Wilson advised that: “Companies should encourage a more balanced and appropriate way of working.”

The loss of 10 IQ points is, according to Wilson, more than the cognitive losses from smoking marijuana, which the research says reduces effective IQ by about six points.

Elsewhere, Stanford neuroscientist Russ Poldrack found that learning something while multitasking causes the new information to go to the wrong part of the brain. If students’ study and watch TV at the same time, the information from their studies goes into the striatum, a region dedicated for storing new procedures and skills, such as learning how to juggle.

Without TV distracting the students, the information enters the hippocampus, where it is structured and classified in a variety of ways, making recall easier.

Poldrack explained: “When we learn while we multitask, we rely more heavily on the basal ganglia, a brain system that’s involved in the learning of skills and habits. [However], when we encode information in a more focused state, we rely more heavily on our brain’s hippocampus – which actually lets us store and recall the information.”

The same holds true when we undergo professional training and learn new information, while simultaneously surfing our smartphones – the information ends up in the striatum. If we had been paying full attention, the information would have been encoded in the hippocampus.

There are also the metabolic costs, which are summarised by Daniel Levitin, author of The Organized Mind (2015): “Asking the brain to shift attention from one activity to another causes the prefrontal cortex and striatum to burn up oxygenated glucose, the same fuel they need to stay on task. And the kind of rapid, continual shifting we do with multitasking causes the brain to burn through fuel so quickly that we feel exhausted and disoriented after even a short time. We’ve literally depleted the nutrients in our brain. This leads to compromises in both cognitive and physical performance.”

Every time we are interrupted by something, such as an email, or we are multitasking, we create anxiety and stress, which can affect our mood and behaviour. Whereas if we can remain focused, we end up using less energy and remain productive.

Rehan Khan is a principal consultant for BT, an educator and a novelist

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