The working day is hectic enough without regular interruptions from your co-workers, your email inbox, and the smartphone in your pocket, but scientists have come up with a formula for keeping your productivity up even on a fragmented schedule.
The secret, according to a new study, is having a plan prepared in advance for resuming work as soon as you've finished chatting with Janice from accounts or fixing the booster lever on your office chair.
This "ready-to-resume plan", as the team of researchers describes it, means you can pivot between tasks more effectively, without the usual brain fog that comes from switching between too many different jobs. What's more, it helps you give more of your attention to whatever's interrupting you.
"We have to proactively manage the way we transition between tasks to help our attention be more focused and less distracted or divided among everything we have on our plate," says one of the researchers, Sophie Leroy from the University of Washington Bothell School of Business.
"The ready-to-resume plan is one simple way to help when dealing with frequent interruptions. In doing so, we actually also help the person who interrupts – because we will be more present in that interaction and our input will be of higher quality."
To test the effects of interruptions, Leroy and her colleague Theresa Glomb, from the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management, studied 202 working professionals as they were asked to switch between two different tasks.
Using a word association game, the workers were shown to still be thinking about their original task even after they'd switched to a new one – not ideal if you want to be hitting deadlines and putting out your best work.
In experiments on a further 110 people, workers were asked to break off from a task to review a series of CVs, before going back to the first task. Those who had a ready-to-resume plan in place were able to remember more details from the CVs they'd been reading when they switched back again.
"It's an improvement in performance, both in quality of information retained and in the ability to make decisions with complex information," says Leroy.
If you're eager to put together your own ready-to-resume plan just in case you get hit with an urgent new job in your inbox, the researchers say it should include where you need to pick up again, what challenges are left to deal with, and what actions you need to take.
Even just taking a minute to note down some details of where you need to pick up again can help, the study shows. It doesn't have to be lengthy or elaborate.
The researchers describe it as a way of dealing with "attention residue", where your attention gets muddled – so for example, you might start drifting off in a meeting as you think about the other work you've still got left to do.
In this case the researchers only looked at the benefits on doing the secondary task, and didn't analyse how well people returned to their first lot of work afterwards, though they expect a positive impact here too.
Follow-up studies are planned to look at the effects further, but in the meantime, the researchers say we need to manage tasks in our brains just like we manage apps on a computer – otherwise we're not being as effective as we could be.
"It's like Windows staying open in our brains, and it makes it hard to focus on the intervening work," says Leroy.
"As I am still thinking about Task A while trying to do Task B, I don't have the cognitive capacity to process those two tasks at the same time and do a perfect job on both tasks. It's not cognitively possible."
The research is due to be published in Organization Science.