Originally written for LawTalk Magazine, published 1 November 2019
We’re a distracted workforce these days. While some types of distraction can be good for productivity, such as in creative tasks where it can make space for the more intuitive, holistic, creative right brain to rev up, typically distraction is adversely affecting our workplace productivity, getting in the way of what we want to achieve each day.
Organisations and advertisers are constantly vying for our attention with abundant and instantly available information, but it’s become clear that our attention is a limited resource and therefore a valuable commodity. Online content may be limitless, but our ability to consume information is limited by our attention span.
On one hand technology offers efficiency by providing ease of access to information, ongoing connectivity and the ability to collaborate with workmates in different locations in real time. From its initial introduction, the benefits of technology outweighed the costs of distraction and we saw workplace productivity increase in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Since then, digital distraction has increased to a point where it’s now clearly hindering our productivity, time management, brain function and energy levels rather than helping us.
Digital distraction is not the only type of distraction in the workplace. The Udemy 2018 Workplace Distraction Report cites chatty co-workers and office noise as top distractions alongside technology and devices.
Organisations are estimating they’re losing as much as two to three hours of productivity per worker each day to workplace distractions. If you haven’t already been distracted since you started reading this, you’re probably going to be before you finish, just as I’ve been distracted since I started writing.
Working with the distraction of emails and phone calls can reduce IQ by around 10 points compared to working in uninterrupted quiet according to some reports. This is the same as losing a night’s sleep and twice as bad as smoking weed.
A University of California Irvine study found that the average office worker gets only 11 minutes between each interruption and that it takes around 25 minutes to fully return to focus on the original task after an interruption. Around half the time interruptions are self-imposed – for example, switching your attention voluntarily to check email, social media or the internet. The average worker can check their phone up to as much as 150 times a day.
It’s not surprising that we’re compelled to self-interrupt with technology and there’s two main reasons.
Firstly, it comes down to Freud’s pleasure principle – the idea that everything we do is about moving towards pleasure and away from pain. Nir Eyal, technology and psychology expert and author of Indistractable: How to control your attention and choose your life, takes it one step further says at the neurological level it’s all about avoiding pain and discomfort. So, when we get to a task we don’t particularly want to do, we start to look for distraction, which is easy to find these days.
Secondly, the addictive nature of the internet and particularly social media is well known. When we tune into our messaging services or the internet, we never know what’s going to come up and it’s this unpredictability and anticipation that has us going back for more because each time we come across something, it releases that reward hormone, dopamine, in the brain. Dopamine is associated with compulsion and addiction circuits in the brain, the more we get, the more we want, and the feedback loop is reinforced.
It’s the same process with the ‘ding’ of notifications on our phones, except there’s a double hit. We get the first, and biggest, hit of dopamine when the phone beeps at us and then another hit when we check our phone and like what we see. All this leads to addictive tendencies, like a substance or gambling addiction, and the more we lose focus, the more we seek distraction.
With all this distraction, there is little time for the deep thinking and flow states needed for complex tasks that require distraction free concentration. Small interruptions might seem harmless on their own, but when you add them up over time, can really affect the quality and efficiency of work. To compensate for interruptions, people often tend to work faster, resulting in higher stress levels, frustration, time pressure and error rates.
You would think that the opposite of distraction would be focus, but according to Eyal, its traction. Both ‘distraction’ and ‘traction’ come from the Latin ‘trahere’ – ‘to pull’. Distraction is anything that pulls you away from your task and traction is any action that pulls you towards what you want to do.
In order to get traction despite distractions consider these strategies in the workplace:
Set up for the start of the day: Instead of diving straight into your emails or social media at the start of the day, take some time to set your work agenda and direction so you can be proactive and take control of your day rather than being reactive.
Schedule uninterrupted focus time: Where you can, commit to blocking out regular time in your calendar to focus on specific tasks or projects, try working offline and minimise interruptions – that’s looking at emails, messages and the internet and taking calls.
Choose a length of time that works for you, whether it’s an ultradian rhythm, that is, the 90-120 minute rhythm of our bodies’ natural peak and trough of energy followed by a break, or a pomodoro cycle of a block four 25 minute work blocks with a five minute rest between each, or some variation in between. Employees who get time to themselves often report feeling more energised, friendlier and smarter as well as more productive.
Take phone free breaks: Many of us automatically check our phones in our downtime even though we want to get away from technology. It’s been shown that workers who take their phones on breaks (even if they don’t look at them) feel less restored, productive and happy when they get back to work.
So leave the phone behind when you take your breaks and set in place some positive habits that can help you feel more focused and motivated when you get back to work like getting outside, doing some movement or exercise, meditation or connecting with friends and colleagues.
Limit email and message checking: Emails and messages are a constant distraction through the day and if you’re always interrupting your work to respond to them, it creates a feeling of busyness without a corresponding feeling of productivity. The constant switching of attention can drain your energy and focus.
Depending on the nature of your work, consider making a habit of only checking and responding to messages a few times a day – for example, in the morning after you’ve set your work agenda, before or after lunch and before you finish for the day. You’ll get through them faster than responding as they come in and you’ll save energy from having to switch focus.
Switch off email notifications on your desktop and make a habit of not having your inbox open when you’re working. Create an out of office message on email to let people know this is your process, stating the times you check your messages, and to call if matters are urgent, if that helps.
If your workplace is one that always expects instant accessibility, Eyal argues that it’s not the technology itself that’s the distraction but that the distraction is a symptom of a cultural dysfunction in the workplace. Companies that don’t have a problem with distraction have staff that are satisfied with their level of connectivity to technology and don’t feel constantly pressured into a cycle of responsiveness. Notably, management in these companies demonstrate indistractable behaviours – they have a healthy relationship with technology, shut off from it at appropriate times and refuse to buy into the instant responsiveness trap.
Streamline social media access: Restrict access to social media to one device and take apps off your other devices. Set time limits for apps so they restrict access after your daily allowance is up. This helps remind you that your devices are tools for important tasks, not for mindless scrolling and distraction.
Switch off notifications (including email) on your phone and desktop. Social media notifications rarely need immediate attention and if you’ve set up your email process above, people will call with urgent matters.
Use quiet spaces: A change of work environment can promote positivity and create space for consolidating ideas in your head. If your workplace has quiet spaces, use them, or find your own quiet corner or café away from office noise and get a change of scene.
There will always be digital distractions. We just need to find ways to manage ourselves, build traction and habits that help us to use technology to our advantage.