Work distractions are making you dumber

Work distractions are nothing new, but lately they’re multiplying like Gremlins (kids: Gremlins was a 20th century motion picture). In the old days, you maybe had an office chatterbox or two; today, every office chatterbox in the world is hanging out on your computers and phones.

What’s the effect of all this noise? The New York Times took a plunge into that topic this week, guided by researchers at Carnegie Mellon. There’s some good news! But first…

The bad news: multitasking is a vampire and your brain waves are its blood

“There is some evidence that we’re not just suckers for that new text message, or addicted to it; it’s actually robbing us of brain power, too,” the article states. We’ve previously talked about how email distraction in particular can be an IQ killer. Our brains just aren’t equipped for a constant tug-of-war between work and Facebook, or even between Work Project 1 and Work Project 2.

“When we’re constantly distracted and interrupted, as we tend to be online, our brains are unable to forge the strong and expansive neural connections that give depth and distinctiveness to our thinking,” wrote Nicholas Carr in The Wall Street Journal. Carr, who wrote a whole book on the topic, cited “profoundly worried” neuroscientists who believe the blitzkrieg of digital distractions and disruptions will have a ruinous effect on our intellect. So there’s that. (Full disclosure: I answered a text from my wife while in the middle of this paragraph.)

More bad news: email and social media aren’t the only culprits

Email and social media have a unique ability to foil your focus. An irrelevant email or an irresistible “47 pets that look like zombies” tweet can send you straight down the rabbit hole. Even once you get back to work, it takes a while for your brain to reset and do the “Uh, what were we doing again?” thing.

But even if you unplug, there are all sorts of things that can pull your focus and have the same brain-draining impact as an hour on YouTube. Is your office too cold? Too hot? Too noisy? Too cramped? Poorly lit? Your physical environment is full of potential causes of distraction.

The good news: you can fight back

The Times article cites evidence that we can prevent work distractions from derailing our days: “Somehow, it seems, [the test group] marshaled extra brain power to steel themselves against interruption, or perhaps the potential for interruptions served as a kind of deadline that helped them focus even better.”

Some companies are experimenting with blackout hours, when employees aren’t expected to answer email or pick up the phone. Others are trying to reduce distractions during the day by reducing the amount of work employees are doing at night. Cloud collaboration offers a way to crawl out of the email avalanche without losing access to information and discussions. Others swear by meditation as a means of erasing mental chatter. If you enjoy social media, plan for it – or even use it as reward. Nobody works at 100% capacity all the time.

When it comes to your physical environment, it’s a matter of striking a balance. You don’t want to be a diva who can’t finish a PowerPoint deck because florescent lights are eating your soul – and you don’t want your whole office wrestling over the thermostat to get it juuust right. But don’t feel like a wimp or a whiner if there are environmental factors that prove distracting. At least some of them should be easily remedied – and you may find that other people share your feelings.

Have you found your own way to fight work distractions? We’d love to hear and share your tips!

Post by Adam McKibbin

Adam McKibbin is the content marketing manager for iMeet Central. His writing has been featured in Adweek, the Chicago Tribune and The Nation, and he’s produced content for some of the leading tech brands on the Fortune 500.