April 9, 2021

‘Nano Transitions’ Are the Key to Staying Focused (and Happy) Working from Home

ARE DAILY INTERRUPTIONS GOOD OR BAD? Research about nano transitions shows that they can have a positive impact on people working from home.

Coining a new term that everybody uses isn’t easy to do—on the CGU campus, one of the most successful practitioners is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, whose use of the word “flow” to describe a psychological state of concentration has become a common household expression today.

Now his colleague M. Gloria González-Morales and her students Megan Benzing, Alyssa Birnbaum, and Chloe Darlington have come up with another term that perfectly describes many people’s experiences during the pandemic—“nano transitions.”

What are these?

You probably know what a nano transition is even if you haven’t used this term before. You’ve definitely experienced a nano transition if, working from home, you’ve been pulled away from your computer to get the mail, change the laundry, let the dog out, or make lunch for your children.

González-Morales and her team use this term in their study of the barrier separating work from the rest of one’s life, which has become increasingly porous for many since quarantine started in March 2020.

M. Gloria González-Morales of DBOS

The business-focused news site Quartz At Work talked to González-Morales this spring about her team’s study of these transitions and how they relate to much larger transitions in people’s lives, like retirement or changing jobs, and an area of psychological study known as “boundary theory.”

Some might say “nano transitions” are just a diplomatic way to refer to all those annoying interruptions that take place during one’s work day, but that’s not it. González-Morales cautions against thinking of these experiences in that way. Nano transitions, she told Quartz At Work, can positively influence our lives at home.

Taking a minute to go online and buy groceries or to post an update on Facebook or chase a toddler around the house—to qualify as a “nano transition,” she says, the interruption must be autonomous, intentional, and regulated, or “air,” a nifty acronym!—gives our brains some much-needed relief, she says, and these small shifts of attention are actually essential to staying productive and avoiding burnout.

The pandemic and social distancing have created an intense focus on the way we organize our time and tasks at home.

The expression that they’ve coined, points out González-Morales, who is also an associate editor at Work & Stress journal, refers to tasks “that would have been seen as counterproductive before the pandemic.” These tasks have been frowned upon by supervisors and discouraged in the office.

But they shouldn’t be. The pandemic and social distancing have created an intense focus on the way we organize our time and tasks at home, and González-Morales argues that these tiny shifts in attention throughout the day are actually the keys to staying productive and avoiding burnout. Nano transitions give workers something important: a sense of control.

“Supervisors and managers need to understand that people have taken agency over their work􀅺ows and their work life,” she told Quartz At Work. Working from home “has given them the idea that, ‘Yeah, I can manage my work not based on who’s watching or whether coworkers are there.’”

Visit here for more about González-Morales and her team’s work on nano transitions at Quartz At Work and here for more about a Quartz At Work panel featuring González-Morales on how to get re-engaged with work when morale is running low. (Note: Readers must subscribe to see the full articles.)