Dr. David Henderson
June 04, 2013
David Henderson

Yes it does, according to a study reported in a New York Times article titled “Brain, Interrupted.” What researchers found is that two interruptions during a routine task decreased performance by 20%. That is the equivalent of going from a B- to a failing grade.

Interestingly, a third group, who was warned of a potential interruption but did not experience one, improved their performance by 48%! They even outperformed the control group. The article presented two theories as to why this might be true. 1. Having been alerted to a potential interruption, the group prepared themselves for it and their brain buffered against it. 2. The potential interruption established a sense of urgency which heightened the brain’s concentrating powers in preparation for an impending deadline.

Either explanation makes sense and supports recommendations that I have made to my clients suffering from concentration problems who want behavioral and cognitive approaches to improve their performance. Here are just a few helpful hints:

1. Eliminate as many distractions as possible. We love our facebook and twitter accounts but they do not serve us well in the midst of a task requiring sustained mental effort. The article noted that in a business environment, the average time between interruptions is approximately 11 minutes. It can take up to 25 minutes to return to the original task, once distracted. Efficiency requires that we remove as many of these distractions as possible. So log out of your facebook account. Put your cellphone in a drawn in another room. Wear earplugs. Make sure that you environment is stable. Your performance will improve drastically.

2. Incentivize your brain. I was particularly intrigued by the improvement of the group that was alerted to potential distractions ahead of time. I believe this supports the recommendation for frequent, time-limited breaks involving a tangible incentive. Setting a timer can simulate the sense of urgency experienced by the test-takers in this study. The knowledge that the clock is ticking and that a break is coming helps to keep the brain on high alert. Many individuals with ADHD report a tendency to procrastinate until the last minute and then crank out the work hours before a deadline. If you can create these mini-deadlines in your daily life, it will help keep your brain focused. Be sure to reward yourself at the end of the hour with a small token reward: a brisk walk around the hall, a trip to the water cooler, a quick youtube video, or yes, even a post to your twitter or facebook account. When I was in medical school, I used to watch 10 minutes of my favorite movie during each break. Whatever it takes. Just be sure to return to the task at hand once your break is over.

3. Schedule obsessively. Your brain needs structure. learn to put everything, even your downtime, into the calendar. Live and die by the schedule. In doing so, be sure to make room for distractions. They are an inevitable reality. Buffer in some time to make up for those distractions. That way, you will not always feel under the gun. I like my outlook calendar for major activities, but I will often use a hard copy schedule that I can lay out in front of me for jotting notes, checking boxes, and designating items to return to at a later time.

4. Turn off the X-box. Finally, in your down time, try engaging in pleasurable activities that will enhance your concentrating abilities rather than detract from them. Video games are great fun but they are often reactionary and impulse-oriented. You respond to what is happening on the screen with quick decisions and actions, much like the multi-tasking at work that tends to ruin efficiency. Instead, trying playing (Yes, I’m going to sound really boring) BOARD GAMES. There are a lot of great games that you can enjoy alone or with friends that will enhance your cognitive abilities. Scrabble, Clue, Settlers of Catan, Sudoku, Boggle. All these games have shown to help with cognitive functioning. And, no, they are not just for nursing home residents!! I guarantee that you will have a blast and fire up your neurons at the same time.

Question: What about you. What secrets have you learned when trying to stay focused?