Distracted? What's your WMC?
Soft Work Environment

Distracted? What's your WMC?
Protecting your personal space at work

February 22, 2021

As humans, we’re pretty good at getting distracted by the smallest of things. It’s laughable how quickly a small distraction can escalate - it could start from something as little as a Twitter notification and end up down the rabbit hole of cat videos on YouTube non-stop for two hours. It doesn’t have to be this way, and psychology helps us understand why we’re so bad at staying focussed.

How distracted are we?

If you think about it, everything in your surroundings seems to be reaching out to grab your attention - social media notifications, text messages, emails, a catchy song, your neighbour playing the guitar, the clock ticking, nearby construction work, to mention a few.

A study by psychologists at Queens University indicates that on average, the human mind experiences roughly 6,200 thoughts per day - that’s a lot, and it shows how susceptible our brains are to meandering.¹ Our minds spend 47% of our waking hours wandering, and people are less happy when their minds are wandering than when they are focussed, according to one Harvard study.²

The psychology behind getting distracted

Interestingly, distractibility varies from person to person based on certain characteristics. A significant part may have to do with differences in individuals’ working memory capacity (WMC). WMC can be seen as a person’s capacity to work with information in their immediate memory. A higher WMC is associated with a stronger ability to concentrate, since such individuals do not process background noise as much as people with lower WMC do.³ The differences in WMC can be attributed to genes, age, surrounding environment, or in some cases, disorders like ADHD. It also varies across personality traits - for instance, the negative impact of distractions on the performance of creative individuals is less than on that of non-creative individuals.

Mind-wandering vs distraction

It might come as a surprise that we tend to come up with some of our best ideas when we are not working with full concentration. Such mind-wandering when you don’t have a task at hand must be distinguished from distractions while you’re supposed to be focussed on a task. ‘Radiant thinking”, where our mind wanders outward in multiple directions, is more conducive to innovation and creativity than the more restrictive ‘linear thinking’ approach is.

And although one may want to sit in isolation to stay free from distractions, research shows that the number of high-quality innovations increases as the number of interactions among people increases. So mind-wandering may not necessarily be a bad thing after all - especially if creativity and innovation are beneficial, and provided you don’t wander too far from the core task!

Coping with distractions

Start by looking within yourself to point out the cause of internal distractions. Is something bothering you - perhaps an unfinished task that you need to wrap up; or a headache because you haven’t slept well? Address these issues before you dive into your next task.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow theory highlights our state of being in the ‘flow’ - when we are so absorbed in doing something that nothing seems to break our focus. The eight “states”, based on skill and challenge level, are illustrated in the diagram below.


‘Flow’ is the optimal state for high productivity. Flow, often described as ‘being in the zone’, is where a person becomes so deeply absorbed in an activity where the challenge matches their skill level, that they become oblivious to external factors. Distractions don’t seem to matter.

For people with monotonous jobs, this might not seem too realistic to achieve due to the lack of challenge. A good old method here would be the Pomodoro Technique, whereby you divide your time into intervals (usually 25 minutes each) and take short breaks in between. This is somewhat like ‘interval training’ for athletes - short bursts of training, punctuated by recovery time before going again.

Job crafting could also be useful here - customise the way you do your job to make it more interesting. Though it might be rigid in terms of the output required, you can still be creative with the process you use to reach the end goal. In fact, if your job is repetitive, like sorting files, it’s okay to let your mind wander a little!

Managing distractions at home

Given the changing nature of the way we work, distractions while working from home merit mention. The Autonomy-in-Isolation model can be used by employers to distinguish between employees based on their ability to deal with isolation and to work autonomously.

Autonomy in Isolation

Employees who work well from home are those who can work autonomously (high self-discipline, focus, and the ability to steer clear of distractions), whilst dealing with the social isolation that accompanies working remotely.

SHAPE provides the wide-angle view that covers issues like distraction, which helps managers oversee their remote workforce more effectively, giving them confidence in employees who are not under their watchful eye.

¹Tseng, Julie, and Jordan Poppenk. 2020. “Brain Meta-State Transitions Demarcate Thoughts across Task Contexts Exposing the Mental Noise of Trait Neuroticism.” Nature Communications 11 (1): 3480. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-17255-9.

²Killingsworth, M. A., and D. T. Gilbert. 2010. “A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind.” Science 330 (6006): 932–932. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1192439.

³Sörqvist, Patrik, and Jerker Rönnberg. 2014. “Individual Differences in Distractibility: An Update and a Model.” PsyCh Journal 3 (1): 42–57. https://doi.org/10.1002/pchj.47.

Doyle, Maddie, and Adrian Furnham. 2012. “The Distracting Effects of Music on the Cognitive Test Performance of Creative and Non-Creative Individuals.” Thinking Skills and Creativity 7 (1): 1–7. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tsc.2011.09.002.

Björk, Jennie, and Mats Magnusson. 2009. “Where Do Good Innovation Ideas Come From? Exploring the Influence of Network Connectivity on Innovation Idea Quality.” Journal of Product Innovation Management 26 (6): 662–70. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1540-5885.2009.00691.x.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. 1990. “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.”

“The Pomodoro Technique. Accessed February 2, 2021. https://francescocirillo.com/pages/pomodoro-technique.

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