Brief Distractions Not So Distracting

It’s no secret that a worker’s performance drops after long periods of time doing a repetitive, mindless task. Hell, my performance drops after doing any sort of task for long periods of time. But whether writing a blog post or changing all of the two-digit years to four-digits in software code in order to avert Y2K, it turns out that a few minor distractions by TPS reports can greatly improve performance.

There’s a theory out there that says something to the effect that a person has a limited amount of attention resources, and that these get drained the longer we focus ourselves on tasks. But seeing as nobody has found a reservoir for such resources in the brain, Alejandro Llera from the University of Illinois thought that the theory is a bunch of crap. Instead, he argues that it is a failure of cognitive control, or “executive control,” and that it is possible to “reboot” our ability to mindlessly plow through an activity by briefly interrupting our focus on the goal.

Llera tested this goal recently in a paper published in the journal Cognition. He took 72 students and asked them to spot the difference between a short line and a long one. One right after the other, lines would appear in the same place on a screen. For 40 straight minutes, the participants hit a button whenever they saw one of the 120 shorter sticks out of a total of 1200 frames.

And you thought your job was boring.

But before he subjected his lab rats to the task, he asked a second group to memorize four numbers between two and nine, warning them that at any moment they might be asked to recall them. Except, they were never asked to do so until the end of the session.

The real test came for the third group, who were shown a digit after 600 trials and again after the 900th and asked to indicate whether or not the number was one of theirs that they were asked to remember. A final control group was shown the numbers, but never asked to remember any of them to begin with. This ensured that there wasn’t something magical about showing numerals – or anything other than long and short lines – that could help performance.

All of the groups had about the same success rate at remembering their numbers as well as how fast they were able to pick out the shorter lines.

But this wasn’t a memorization test. It was a performance test.

Those who were asked to temporarily “deactivate” their long-term, repetitive objective in order to recall the number list fared much better at completing the second half of the test accurately.

So the results seem pretty clear. If you’re stuck doing the same task over and over again, take a short mental break now and then in order to increase your performance, even if it’s only for a few seconds.

But I’d still avoid those TPS reports.


About bigkingken

A science writer dedicated to proving that the Big Ten - or the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, if you will - is more than athletics.
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