In our hyper-connected world, distractions abound. Instant communication, the draw of the internet, other people – a sum of interruptions wreak havoc with our productivity. They may be small in stature, but it’s not as easy to refocus from a distraction as you might think. From the biggest culprits to how they impact your work, here’s how to cost and control your distractions.
The 5 biggest work distractions
First things first, let’s identify the bigges offenders. Here are some of the most common distractions eating into our productive capital:
“Always on” digital tools
Digital work tools are now available on our phones, desktops and watches, leaving us vulnerable to constant distraction. A slew of notifications and pings interrupt us every day – from email, Slack, text and calls through to in-app comments. While they may seem harmless, together they have a huge toll on our productivity. They encourage a grazing form of working, where we hop from task to task (68% of us switch apps 10 times an hour!). All this context switching means we work in a state of continuous partial attention, without concentrating fully on any one task, which severely limits our ability to do productive deep work. It’s also a completely passive form of work, and such messages often introduce tangents into our workflows, distracting us from completing more valuable work.
If you work in an office, there are myriad things that can distract you – from movement and talking, to weird smells coming from the kitchen. Noise in particular poses a huge problem; 65% of people in one 2019 survey reported that noise impacted their ability to complete work, with 44% stating it had a negative impact on their wellbeing. While working from home may offer some people more peace and quiet, it comes with its own challenges (particularly if you are sharing your work space with children or other remote workers during lockdown). Your unstructured home environment ultimately carries its own set of distractions, from domestic tasks and chores, to pets and comforts.
Few things waste time like meetings. Research suggest they absorb about 15.5 hours of the average employee’s weekly schedule, although these figures are likely to be much higher for companies bridging the new unknowns of remote collaboration during COVID-19 lockdown. Nearly everyone who’s worked in an office has experienced the pain of being in a meeting that has nothing to do with you at all... the US economy alone wastes $25 million per day on ones that are completely unnecessary! Yet many of us still plod along diligently when meetings are arranged. Even when meetings are valuable, they're not always well-planned, often creating short bubbles of time throughout our day which are too short to make progress on anything. They can also be scheduled at inopportune times; in to one recent study, 44% of participants reported that poorly scheduled meetings meant they didn't have enough time to do their actual work.
Sadly, we are often the source of our own distraction. Light procrastination seems harmless, but it can seriously limit your productivity. It’s tempting – especially when we have lots on – to take a breather: scroll through social media maybe, or read the latest news. There's actually a whole new term specifically for this digital procrastination – "cyberloafing" – which many people see as positive and harmless. And then, of course, there's the antithesis of procrastination (called "precrastination"), which can be equally diverging. But ultimately, anything unproductive that inserts itself into your focused work space is a distraction, and digital breathers themselves are no substitute for quality, productive "deep breaks".
No matter how much we might like our colleagues, they can be one of our biggest distractions. From people who can’t help stopping to chat to those who ask for “quick favors” (that often aren’t “quick” at all…), colleagues can play havoc with both your schedule and focus.
The productive cost of distractions
Now we’ve isolated some of the biggest distractions, we need to examine their impact on both performance and focus. Falling prey to any of the above distractions means you are much more likely to:
Perform “shallow work”: When we’re distracted, we perform "shallow work" – low-value, repetitive tasks that aren’t cognitively difficult and make us feel productive. But shallow work rarely produces anything meaningful; responding to emails, scanning websites, and repetitive admin all fall into the category. To a degree, it’s a necessary evil, but it rarely progresses actual valuable work or matches the satisfaction of completing “cognitively difficult” tasks.
Struggle to focus: You may think getting right back to work after a distraction means you didn’t waste much time – but this isn’t the case. It takes nearly 30 minutes to refocus each time you get distracted. This is due to ‘task residue’ – the idea that we continue to process tasks well after moving on to dealing with a new one. Which feeds into the next point…
Multitask: People usually multitask to feel more productive, but this way of working is actually very ineffective when it comes to productivity. Jumping from task to task means that not only do you waste time refocusing each time you restart a task, but your attention will always be spread too thinly to perform truly quality productive work. You sacrifice substance for the surface appearance of productivity.
Be incapabable of deep work: Deep work is, unsurprisingly, the opposite of shallow work. It relates to our capacity to work in a state of focus for long stretches of time, without distraction. This is our most cognitively rewarding work, and those who can perform it generally produce a higher quality (and quantity) of work. In contrast to unsatisfying shallow work, deep work requires a distraction-free environment and allows you to achieve things of value.
Get locked into destructive cycles: distractions breed unproductive habits – from feeling the need to check emails throughout the day, to falling into the trap of being “immediately available” or continuing to attend pointless meetings. And these habits can be extremely destructive: spending your day in a state of perpetual distraction is unrewarding and stressful.
How to minimize distractions
To effectively manage your biggest personal distractions, you need to identify them – knowing what they are, where they occur, and how much time they cost you.
Automatic time tracking is a no-brainer for this – unlike your manual spreadsheet or timer, it captures all the time you spend in every app at work for you. You essentially get a complete overview of what you do in a day – including time spent on different websites, checking email, attending meetings and taking phone calls.
From this, you can not only pinpoint your biggest distractions, but you can identify issues holding your productivity back: bottlenecks, lengthy processes and broken workflows are all made visible. Only once you’ve isolated where your time is being stolen, where you’re getting interrupted and when you’re most productive, you can figure out what you need to change.
Being completely automatic, AI-powered time trackers like Timely don’t add to your list of distractions; they track and process all your time without any manual input, so you can immerse yourself in deep work. Actually tackling your distractions will involve actual behavioral and environmental change. Luckily, there are a few tools and strategies that can help you protect your attention and lock your focus, including: