The study, published in the Human Performance journal, studied how well participants’s could focus on tasks which required up to 40 minutes of concentration.
Importantly, they were looking at what they did beside the actual task, whether it was getting distracted or nothing, they had to simply try to focus for all that time.
They found if participants were surfing online – like looking at Youtube videos or on social media like Facebook – they actually were able to concentrate for longer.
Our ability to concentrate on any one task is actually pretty low: without a break, we can go for from about five to 15 minutes, after which we start to lose focus. At which point, we’re liable get distracted by anything little thing that pops into our periphery, like an email or notification.
We then so often develop guilty narratives about how easily we get distracted, by the ubiquitous cat gif or latest Facebook status. We say things like, “I just can’t help myself!” But it may be our brain reaching out for a much needed refresher.
This goes someway to defeating the received wisdom that long hours on the same task are the best ways to work (what our parents called, ‘hard graft’). In fact it seems from this research that we’re better off working on smaller tasks, for brief periods, and switching between them. Or as found in the study, giving ourselves 5 minute breaks by surfing a little the internet, going for a walk or reading articles.
Of course, it’s important these tasks are more about passive scanning than actively taking up information: in which case, we’re just further taxing our aching brain.
New insights like these advise companies not to ban websites like Facebook – which some businesses have taken up to prevent distractions – which create Draconian environments to keep office workers on task.
In fact, the study reported that positive or even neutral environments, which they tested by something sad and happy pictures, are far better for concentration and willingness to work than negative. A crackdown on internet access can both prevent workers from taking important breaks and create an oppressive, anti-productive environment.
The moral of the story is: do what makes you feel good (within reason): tasks that may seem vacuous and time-wasting may prove important. Managers should learn to be less Draconian and recognise that a happy workforce is a productive one, a fact which often goes ignored.