You already have a million things to get done at work today. Add to the mix some coworkers chatting nearby, your friend blowing up your phone about a weekend plan that feels like lightyears away at this point, your mom emailing you photos of your little brother’s prom and an impromptu meeting with your boss and it starts to feel like there’s no way you’ll get through your to-do list.
But here’s some good news: When it’s crunch time, our brains will automatically shut out the world.
New research suggests that when you’re really focused—when the task at hand is particularly challenging or engaging—your brain will ignore distractions that are unrelated to what you’re doing.
“Your brain knows—when you need to focus on a task, it will sort of tone down the world,” said researcher Alejandro Lleras of the University of Illinois. You’re “more likely to stay focused on your task and be successful at your task.”
Lleras and fellow researcher Simona Buetti, also of the University of Illinois, had study participants listen to math problems and do them in their heads while images of unrelated things—cows in a pasture, a man or a cup on a table, for example—randomly flashed on a screen.
They found that the folks given trickier problems that required more concentration and mental engagement were less likely to glance at the images, meant to be a distraction from the math task.
What does this mean for workplace distractions? Lleras and Buetti think their findings can be easily applied to real life.
“What our theory would say (is) the more motivated and engaged in your task you are, the less the sources of distraction are going to pull you away from your task,” Lleras said. “On the other hand, if you’re… doing something that doesn’t require a lot of effort, a menial task at work, you’re going to be more annoyed by (a distraction) because you’re less focused.”
This runs counter to a popular theory on distraction—that the busier we are, the more easily we can be distracted, Buetti said.
The “load theory,” as it’s called, says that when you’re devoting a lot of brainpower to a task “you have fewer resources to control” your distractedness, Lleras said.
However, that theory was developed based on research in which distractions were related to the task at hand, Buetti said. That changes the way your brain categorizes the distraction.
“If you think about distractions in the real world, maybe at work,… those may often be unrelated to what you’re trying to do,” Lleras said. For example, “people are talking over there, (or) there’s music from above.”
While you can’t control when your brain kicks into this mute-button mode, you can control how absorbed you are in your task, Buetti said.
“There is always… this ongoing balance between focus on our thoughts and focus on our outer environment,” she said. When our brains are engaged by our work, “we are less captured by the events out there.”
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Katie Moritz is Rewire’s web editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores, rock concerts and pho. She covered politics for a newspaper in Juneau, Alaska, before driving down to balmy Minnesota to help produce long-standing public affairs show “Almanac” at Twin Cities PBS. Now she works on this here website. Reach her via email at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz and on Instagram @yepilikeit.