Feature

When Larry Rosen, PhD, talks to people who want to improve their productivity, he zeroes in on the importance of minimizing interruptions. Rosen, professor emeritus of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills, goes as far as to suggest that people put up a "do not disturb" sign when they need to focus on a task.

While this may not be plausible for everyone, Rosen's studies have shown how being distracted can become a bad habit that ultimately decreases our effectiveness at work or in school.

Fortunately, he and other psychology researchers have identified new ways to help people overcome the hurdles that stand in the way of their productivity, whether they are personal habits or environmental challenges. Here are some of those findings.

Grow your attention span

Even though technology can empower us to accomplish things faster, Rosen has found that those benefits can disappear when digital distractions are so readily available.

Boosting productivityIn one study, Rosen asked 260 middle school, high school and university students to study for 15 minutes in their homes. He found that participants averaged less than 6 minutes of studying before switching tasks, most often due to technology distractions—phones vibrating, new email alerts or instant message notifications, as well as students' "self-interruptions" to check electronic devices (Computers in Human Behavior, Vol. 29, No. 3, 2013).

While it can be tempting to think that dealing with these messages is productive, Rosen says this is a false sense of effectiveness. "We may think we are multitasking, but we are really task-switching," he says. "These interruptions take us away from the task at hand." The original task becomes less salient in our brains, and when we return, we waste time trying to remember what we were thinking when we left, Rosen explains.

To increase attention span and productivity, one of Rosen's solutions is the "technology break." He encourages students and workers to give themselves a couple of minutes to check alerts, texts and other messages after 15 minutes of undistracted work. The best way to stay focused is silencing the phone, turning it face down to avoid seeing visual notifications, turning off email alerts and closing distracting websites, Rosen says.

"Once you learn how to work for 15 minutes, start increasing the time before taking a technology break," Rosen says.

Taking short breaks not only satisfies the technology fix, but it also allows us to maintain focus, according to a study conducted by Alejandro Lleras, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. He found that participants who took a short break while focusing on a visual task maintained the same level of performance for 40 minutes, but performance declined for those who didn't take any breaks (Cognition, Vol. 118, No. 3, 2010).

"We know that after about 30 minutes, concentration starts to decrease, so it's important to take small breaks to stay focused on your main task."

The results also showed that the breaks can be surprisingly short—only a couple of seconds for some tasks—to achieve this effect.

Write out your goals

Many people who work are familiar with the idea of setting goals for themselves, but achieving those goals can be elusive. Research is showing that establishing a habit of writing about goals can boost performance.

Cheryl Travers, PhD, a professor at the School of Business and Economics at Loughborough University in Leicestershire, England, asked students to identify areas where they needed to improve, such as raising a grade in a class or increasing concentration while studying. The students were asked to visualize desired outcomes and outline how they could put their goals into practice.

Then the students kept diaries for three months to reflect on their goal progress. For example, students could write down what happened as they attempted to make a change in a particular situation, what worked well or not well, what could have been done better and actions they could take going forward. Travers found that the reflective goal-related writing had a significant impact on their ability to perform better academically (British Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol. 85, No. 2, 2015).

"The act of writing something down seems to make us accountable to a goal," Travers says. "It also helps people to write their way through a problem when they encounter barriers."

By writing about successes and failures and thinking about strategies to overcome difficulties, students gained confidence in themselves and developed academic self-efficacy, Travers says. What was particularly interesting was the evidence showing that academic performance improved even for students who set nonacademic, "softer" goals, such as "increase my assertiveness" or "decrease stress."

Travers is now collecting diaries for managers in organizations, and she will be studying whether this reflective goal setting improves their effectiveness as leaders. "This process allows people to essentially become self-coaches because they are continually evaluating goal outcomes and becoming more self-aware about leader behaviors."

Get together

The idea of fitting in another meeting may seem counter-productive for people working in group settings, but research ­suggests that taking time to debrief as a team can improve productivity in the long run.

Michaela Schippers, PhD, a professor of behavior and performance management at the Rotterdam School of Management at Erasmus University, studied teams working in a health-care environment. She found that the groups that met regularly to evaluate work processes were much more likely to come up with innovative solutions to problems than groups that did not meet regularly. Her work has shown how this team reflexivity (reflecting on team functioning) can significantly improve work performance levels (Journal of Management, Vol.41, No. 3, 2015; Journal of Organizational Behavior, Vol. 34, No. 1, 2013).

"Workers should have regular debriefings, like in the military, but the purpose is not to point out what people are doing wrong," Schippers says. "Instead, the group can brainstorm how to improve as a team, ideally with a facilitator who is leading the meeting."

In the study, the reflexive teams talked about issues such as decreasing waiting times for patients, improving patient record systems and developing a more effective appointment system.

"Our work showed that it was very important for teams that are particularly busy to meet regularly to debrief, because these teams benefited most from the innovative improvements," Schippers says. "The meetings gave them space to think collectively about what could be changed."

Get out of the chair

Researchers are finding that employees with stand-­capable workstations may be more productive than their seated counterparts. Mark Benden, PhD, a professor in the department of environmental and occupational health at Texas A&M School of Public Health, studied two groups of call center employees over six months. One group sat at traditional desks and the other group at stations that enabled workers to elevate their tables whenever they wanted to stand. Benden found that those with stand-capable workstations stood about 1.5 hours longer per day and were 42 percent more productive than those who worked at seated desks. Productivity was measured by how many successful calls the workers completed per hour (IIE Transaction on Occupational Ergonomics and Human Factors, Vol. 4, No. 2-3, 2016).

"By being up more of the time, we improve blood flow to the brain and circulation to the body, and these things combine to make the brain more active and engaged," Benden says.

Research also suggests that it is important for people to avoid "static standing" in one place, he says. The best stand-­capable workstations have foot rails that allow workers to take weight off of one side of the body. If it's not possible to get this type of workstation, workers should take breaks to walk around and get out of the chair, Benden says.

Further reading

The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World
Gazzaley, A., & Rosen, L., 2016

Managing Motivation: A Manager's Guide to Diagnosing and Improving Motivation
Pritchard R.D., & Ashwood, E.L., 2008

Evidence-Based Productivity Improvement: A Practical Guide to the Productivity Measurement and Enhancement System
Pritchard, R.D., Weaver, S.J., & Ashwood, E.L., 2012

Future Time Perspective and Promotion Focus as Determinants of Intraindividual Change in Work Motivation
Kooij, D.T., Bal, P.M., & Kanfer, R., Psychology and Aging, 2014