During a recent manicure, my nail technician alternated between checking text messages, talking to co-workers and applying polish. The manicure took unusually long, and I came to realize that workplace distractions extend well beyond office workers.
No matter what you do for a living, chances are you battle workplace distractions, a phenomenon that has intensified even as our workloads have increased. A University of California study found workers spend about three minutes on a task before getting distracted and then face the rough task of trying to restart where they left off.
For all of us aiming for work/life balance, distractions steal our time and create longer workdays. Along with the personal toll, distractions also hurt the corporate bottom line. Instead of succumbing to lost productivity, experts encourage us to fight distractions by becoming aware of what they are and how they affect our jobs.
Most often these days, we are distracting ourselves. Larry Rosen, a professor of psychology at California State University Domingues Hills and author iDisorder, says there are two types of distractions: self-induced, in which you distract yourself by looking at text messages or checking for likes on Facebook; and external, in which the world interrupts you through phone calls, meetings and chatty co-workers.
Rosen says self-induced distractions, mostly electronic, are becoming prevalent and difficult to manage: We feel a compulsion to check the places where we digitally communicate: email, text, social media messaging. “We might be in the middle of a meeting but if we don’t check in we start feeling anxious,” he says.
The first step in managing our self-generated distractions is to build our ability to concentrate. We need to turn off electronic notifications and focus on a task. A Florida State University study released this month found that cell phone notifications killed the concentration of the study’s participants. They didn’t even have to respond to be distracted, researchers found. Participants were found to perform significantly worse on a task when their phones were buzzing or ringing. In fact, the mind-wandering that notifications provoked made participants three times more likely to make mistakes.
You know how you start working on a report and then flip screens when an email notification pops up? Recognize your vulnerability and start taking tech breaks, Rosen says: “Give yourself one minute to look at every communication modality you choose. Then silence devices, stick to one screen and set the timer for 15 minutes.” Until the buzzer, you will work only on that one screen — come hell or high water, or incoming emails or salacious tweets. Rosen considers it an achievement to get to a half-hour.
Edward Hallowell, author of a new book Driven to Distraction at Work: How to Focus and Be More Productive, says we spend 20 minutes out of every hour dealing with unplanned distractions, and just as much time trying to resume a task after being interrupted. Hallowell calls our heightened distractibility “a massive problem.”
To get a handle on distractions, make yourself less accessible. You may need to close your office door or attach a sign to the outside of your workspace that says something like “On Deadline” or “In Concentration Mode.” If you do that every Tuesday morning for a half hour, you likely will start blocking out more time, Hallowell says.
Another option is retreating to a less visible cubicle or moving your desk near the most productive people in the office. Jose Cano books a conference room when he needs distraction-free time. As a regional public relations supervisor at UPS Americas, Cano handles media inquiries and has had to put systems in place to gauge priorities and limit distractions. For example, to focus on proof-reading, he’ll block out time on the company’s internal instant messaging system that will show him as unavailable. Instead of jumping up to talk to co-workers, he keeps a short list of “talk to later” items or sends an instant message asking a co-worker to schedule a convenient time to talk. “Some of it is just common courtesy,” he says.
Some workers battle distractions by preparing for them — and using bookmarks to help them dive back into a prior task more quickly. Joyce Hunter, president of The Florida Printing Group in Lauderdale By The Sea, considers distractions a component of her job. While writing up a quote for promotional water bottles, a frantic customer may call with an emergency need for business cards. Hunter asks the customer for a second to record her last action on a notepad. “Instead of forgetting where I was, I go back and look at my notes and it’s like…“oh, yeah… I was in the middle of ordering shirts,” Hunter says.
Some of us work in noisy environments that teem with distractions — open work spaces or sales centers, for instance. At the communications offices at University of Miami, television sets blare, twitter notifications ping, and phones ring with inquiries from media. Despite the noise, Alexandra Bassil, a media relations officer, enjoys the hubbub and has figured out how to avert distractions when she needs to focus. She puts on her headphones and listens to jazz music, a signal to colleagues that she’s in concentration mode: “The music calms me and helps block out distractions.”
For workers derailed by walk-ins and chit-chatters, professional organizer Julie Morgenstern suggests having an “exit line” planned, along the lines of “let me get back to you when I can give you my full attention.” Grace Lopez, director of administration for a bustling Miami law firm, uses a technique she has spent time mastering — clear communication: “If I have a busy day ahead of me, I let my colleagues know that I am busy, but that I will follow up with them at a convenient time for both of us,” she says. She also shares a suggestion given to her: Pile papers on the chairs in your office when you want to limit distraction: “People tend not to stay long when there’s nowhere to sit.”
Scheduling carefully helps, too. Most people are more easily distracted from noon to 4 p.m., according to research in 2012 conducted by Robert Matchock, an associate professor of psychology at Pennsylvania State University. Lopez, who excels in her job of keeping the law office running smoothly, says she schedules high-priority tasks and meetings for the mornings: “Today people expect results right away so the amount of distractions can get insane. You have to manage them.”