What’s distracting you from your work?

The topic of the last blog was about interruptions in the workplace. Today I’d like to talk about distractions and what we can do to minimise these.

Let’s start with definitions to highlight the difference between interruptions and distractions.

Interruption - our concentration is broken by others, whether that be people, technology, noise etc.

Distraction - our concentration is disturbed by our self ie. drifting off topic with other thoughts

The frequency of being distracted from a current task at work is similar to those experienced with interruptions - at worst every 6 minutes or at best every 11 minutes. And it can take an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to a difficult task once we’ve been distracted.  

The good news is unlike interruptions, we have greater opportunity to manage and reduce distractions because we aren’t reliant on others to do something differently – just ourselves individually.

It’s not just at work when we’re distracted though. In Australia there are heavy fines to deter us from talking on the mobile phone or texting while driving a car. In the USA though it’s still legal to text while driving in 4 states. The statistics of distracted driving is incredibly powerful:

  • 1 in 4 car accidents in the USA is caused by texting while driving
  • Texting is 6 times more likely to cause an accident than driving while drunk (we are not advocating either!!!)
  • Distracted driving kills 9 people each day in the USA

While being distracted in “blue collar” jobs that interact with machinery or equipment can be extremely dangerous, fortunately safety isn’t usually at risk if we are distracted at most office jobs. However, the quantity and quality of work we produce is reduced quite significantly.

In my job I get to coach people how to work more effectively. When I’m coaching someone with what on face value is just a messy desk, I often find that by digging a little deeper the impact is not the mess but more so:

  • The clutter reminds them of work that has not been done
  • This leads to bouncing between tasks
  • Which can even bring on a sense of feeling overwhelmed

With flexible working a lot of us now have a blended working environment where we can split our working week between the office and home. This can be really productive for some but also unproductive for others if we don’t have an approach to managing distractions. This is especially true for those working from home where potential distractions are high.

4 approaches I suggest to  to reduce distractions are:

  • Capture it – write it down and if it’s not more important than the task you were working on then go back to the existing task ie. during the middle of a task you remember you have to get some milk on the way home so capture the milk reminder
  • Clear the backlog of outstanding work - we’re usually distracted of things not done so have a plan to clear the backlog
  • Have a clear desk / inbox -clutter can give a sense of feeling overwhelmed
  • 1 task at a time– distractions can paralyse making progress so try to focus on completing 1 task at a time

For those working at home, surprisingly the common distractions are the various menial jobs that need to be done ie. stack and unpack the dishwasher, do a load of clothes washing etc. The best thing to do to remove these distractions is to schedule time when to action which will at least give you piece of mind that you have a plan and can get back to what you were doing.

To most people distractions aren’t an obvious productivity drain, but if you look hard enough you will find them and more importantly you have the opportunity to reduce them. The benefit can be producing your work in less time with fewer mistakes.