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the future of work

Ever notice that when a big deadline looms, life's little distractions always seem to get in the way? Maybe your colleague has a shrill voice that can be heard over the otherwise comforting din of other people's fingers tapping away on keyboards. You try working from home but find yourself checking your phone, which keeps beeping with the latest Facebook update, and you can't help but click on the notification.

Most of us strive to create the perfect, distraction-free environment in order to perform at our peak productivity level. While such an environment no longer seems to exist, maybe that's okay, since research seems to show that a little distraction can be beneficial.

Corbin Cunningham, a PhD candidate at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md., and the lead author of a new study recently published in Psychological Science discovered that when distracting visual information remains consistent, people learn to actively ignore it. While at first this hinders their ability to get work done, eventually they become adept at ignoring such extraneous information, allowing them to work more effectively.

"Obviously the best situation is one where you can reduce the amount of distractions around you, working in a quiet place, maybe blocking some of those more distracting websites," Mr. Cunningham said.

"However, what our research suggests is that, even though some environments might provide distractions, over time if those distractions are consistent, you should be able to learn to ignore them successfully," he added.

The takeaway for business professionals, Mr. Cunningham said, is to recognize what information is distracting and actively try to ignore or suppress that information. In other words, practise ignoring those push notifications on your phone or the laundry pile that beckons when you need to get your work done. Over time, you will get better at it.

Mr. Cunningham suggested that it might even be useful to expose people who need to perform in high-pressure situations to distractions ahead of time, so they can get used to them. As an example, he cites basketball players who could be trained to block out the visual hubbub in the bleachers in order to take their shot. Learning to ignore extraneous information can also be beneficial for radiologists or airport baggage screeners.

While Mr. Cunningham's research focuses on visual stimuli, there have been previous studies that show a certain level of noise can also be beneficial, by fostering creativity.

In a 2012 report published in the Journal of Consumer Research, authors Ravi Mehta, Rui Zhu and Amar Cheema discovered that moderate levels of ambient noise enhanced performance. Another study published the same year by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh found that brief moments of unconscious thought help with the decision-making process, which is likely why good ideas come to you in bed while you are trying to fall asleep.

So distractions, while the bane of our professional existence, can offer some benefits. Some of us have already embraced distractions as part of our daily course of business.

Sam Title, chief executive officer of the Coffice, an online community dedicated to professionals who work from coffee shops, says that since he started working from a "coffice" eight years ago, he has found the ambient noise helps him to be more productive.

"These sounds – the coffee grinder, milk being frothed, mugs and plates being washed and restacked … can help me focus on the task at hand, more so than a quiet house or office, which I find can offer far more distractions," Mr. Title said. Over time, he said, he's come to associate his home with thoughts of relaxation and family time, so it no longer feels like a place of business.

While normal coffee shop noises help Mr. Title to focus, he does admit to feeling distracted when a familiar song comes on the sound system or a person with a loud or distinctive voice starts talking. In order to manage these noises, he keeps a playlist on his laptop and his ear buds at hand to drown out these noises and help him focus.

Then again, Mr. Title said he often embraces the chance to speak to other coffee shop patrons – observing that the short breaks set him up for a renewed focus.

Mr. Cunningham admits that he, too, works best in places with ambient noise, like coffee shops, since he finds ways to distract himself with Facebook or other websites when he works in the library at Johns Hopkins. He said identifying what distracts you is a start but some things cannot be blocked out by will or practice alone.

"Whenever I really need to get something done I always block my e-mail, Facebook, or other sources of distraction while I work there. … It is all about reducing the amount of information you have access to at a given time," he said.

Leah Eichler is founder and CEO of r/ally, a machine-learning, human capital search engine for enterprises. Twitter: @LeahEichler

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