Remarkable finding no. 1: Both Interrupted and On High Alert groups answered correctly 20 percent less often on the first test, showing the kind of brain drain that distraction takes on our everyday tasks.
Remarkable finding no. 2: During the second test, the Control group performed equally well. But here’s the twist: Both Interrupted and On High Alert improved dramatically the second time around. Interrupted improved by 14 percent, scoring almost as well as the Control group. But even more stunning, On High Alert—which was warned but not interrupted—actually improved its results by 43 percent, far outperforming even the Control test takers. This unexpected, counterintuitive finding, which will be the subject of an upcoming paper published by Carnegie Mellon, requires further research, but Peer thinks there’s a simple explanation that could lead to some powerful, practical tips for working in a distracting environment. Participants learned from their experience, and their brains adapted.
“[The first test] may have caused participants to pay more attention and invest more cognitive resources in the second task,” he said. “[On High Alert] recruited more cognitive resources in order to overcome the expected interruption and when that did not come, they had more resources to devote to the actual task.”
In other words, warnings about, and experience with, interruptions can help people marshal more brain resources and do better, perhaps the way athletes sometime perform better when they are angry. Interruptions, it’s clear from this test, can cause a dramatic decline in ability, but they don’t have to.
We all agree distractions can have devastating consequences. Napoleon was distracted by Russia. Microsoft was distracted by the government’s antitrust lawsuit. The National Safety Council estimates that 1.6 million accidents are caused annually by cell phone use and texting while driving. And we think we’d all agree that listening and thinking are a good thing. And yet, when it comes to distractions, we are our own worst enemy. In the summer of 2011, Mother Jones magazine put a face on something all Americans have felt since the recession began in 2008: the “Great Speedup.” Companies around the country shed off millions of workers during the depth of the downturn, but workers with “survivor syndrome” picked up the slack. The end result: Productivity among US workers has skyrocketed. A generation of employees now fills what The Wall Street Journal calls “superjobs,” which are basically two people’s jobs smashed into one. Americans now work 378 hours more per year than their German counterparts. In hardly more than a decade, BlackBerrys and other smartphones have completely violated any semblance of work-life balance and work-home division. You are expected to answer an e-mail on Saturday afternoon at 3 P.M. because if you don’t, someone else at your office will.
All this productivity can really waste a lot of money. To borrow a phrase, when you’re going the wrong direction, you should at least take your foot off the gas pedal. Listening is one way to do that.