A University of Illinois professor says people don't need to feel guilty about checking personal e-mail, chatting with co-workers or addressing other minor distractions throughout the work day.
Brief diversions might actually help people concentrate and improve their performance on more important tasks, says Alejandro Lleras, who wrote a study on the topic for the journal Cognition.
Lleras’ research seems to contradict long-standing theories that attention is a finite resource that runs out after a lengthy period of focus. Attention is more like a gas tank that refills during short breaks from the task at hand, according to Lleras’ study.
Lleras based his theory on the idea that our senses become used to stimulus. For example, if you stare at one penny and place another 10 inches away, the penny in your peripheral vision will eventually disappear. If you blink or move, the second penny reappears because the change has jolted the brain.
The same can be true of the thought process. Sustained attention to a thought can cause that thought to disappear. But if you are given something else to think about, the original thought will seem fresh when you return to it.
To prove his theory, Lleras had 84 students focus on numbers flashing on a computer for an hour. One group received no breaks or distractions. Other groups were told to memorize numbers and wait for those numbers to pop up on the screen. The groups that received diversions, in the form of their memorized numbers popping up, sustained their concentration. Other groups saw their attention spans wane after 20 minutes.
“It’s important to create an environment where it’s OK to take small breaks,” Lleras said.