How Distractions At Work Take Up More Time Than You Think

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Make an estimate on how many times are you are distracted during an average work day.

Now take that number and multiply it by 25.

That’s how many minutes of concentration you’re losing. It takes an average of about 25 minutes (23 minutes and 15 seconds, to be exact) to return to the original task after an interruption, according to Gloria Mark, who studies digital distraction at the University of California, Irvine.

Multiple studies confirm this. Distractions don’t just eat up time during the distraction, they derail your mental progress for up to a half hour afterward (that’s assuming another distraction doesn’t show up in that half hour).

In other words, that “30 seconds to check Twitter” isn’t just 30 seconds down the drain. It’s 25 minutes and 30 seconds.

And all these distractions not only hurt productivity, they have negative emotional effects.

“Our research has shown that attention distraction can lead to higher stress, a bad mood and lower productivity,” Mark wrote in the New York Times.

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How distraction is measured

For Mark’s research, observers were sent to shadow knowledge workers at multiple tech and finance companies for three and a half days, Mark told Fast Company. Researchers logged each worker’s activities and timed every task to the second. They found people switch activities an average of every three minutes and five seconds.

They also found that about half the interruptions were self-inflicted. Working on a task and switching tabs to check Facebook, for example, is a self-inflicted interruption. As opposed to, say, a coworker walking over to discuss a project.

We are, essentially, playing tennis with our cognitive energies, volleying them back and forth at a moment’s notice. Only unlike a tennis ball, our brain takes a little time to switch directions.

“People have to shift their cognitive resources, or attentional resources, to a completely different topic,” Mark said. “You have to completely shift your thinking, it takes you a while to get into it and it takes you a while to get back and remember where you were.”

And the problem isn’t just the time wasted. We’re sacrificing some of our best thinking.

“I argue that when people are switching contexts every 10 and half minutes they can’t possibly be thinking deeply. Mark said. “There’s no way people can achieve flow.”

You are not the exception

Let me guess. You think you’re the exception, right? You’re the one special little snowflake who actually can multitask and manage distractions while staying focused? Careful with that kind of thinking.

Drucker

Peter Drucker

The Legendary management consultant and author Peter Drucker warned against it in his 1967 book “The Effective Executive.”

“There was Mozart, of course,” Drucker wrote. “He could, it seems, work on several compositions at the same time, all of them masterpieces. But he is the only known exception. The other prolific composers of the first rank – Bach, for instance, Handel, or Haydn, or Verdi – composed one work at a time. They did not begin the next until they had finished the preceding one, or until they had stopped work on it for the time being and put it away in the drawer. Executives can hardly assume that they are ‘executive Mozarts.’”

Just to be safe, let’s all assume we’re not Mozart. So how do we stay on task and avoid getting sucked in to distractions?

Staying focused, the non-Mozart way

Start by setting aside uninterrupted blocks of time for focusing. Work on one masterpiece at a time. Even brilliant people need uninterrupted focus to do great work.

Mozart

Mozart

Granted, times have changed since Mozart’s era. Back then, you almost had to schedule in time for distractions.

“I’ll work all day and check the day’s mail at 3 p.m.,” the thinking went.

If you got in the zone on your work, you might just work all day and forget to check the mail.

Today’s problem is the opposite: If you don’t plan on getting in the zone, you’ll check your mail all day and forget to work.

Big problem.

At Intel, members of the Software and Services group noticed this problem coming up. They were concerned they weren’t getting enough time to think deeply, and creatively, about problems.

So managers instituted four weekly hours of “think time” that was scheduled and tracked on a shared calendar. During this time, employees weren’t expected to respond to emails or distractions that weren’t urgent.

The program had success early on, with one employee even developing a patent application, according to a Wall Street Journal report.

It’s worth knowing the true cost of distractions. Try to fight it by planning time for distraction-free thinking and working. Let the people in your life and organization know what this time is for. Encourage them to do the same. You’ll get more important things done. You might not become the next Mozart.

But maybe the next Bach.

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  • http://liebjabberings.wordpress.com/ Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt

    Really important for writers, too – constructing a world in your head takes time, and you lose it if you take a break.

    I use Freedom to block the internet, and timers to set chunks of time.

    Unfortunately, knowing how lost I’ll be in my own head sometimes makes it very hard to get started, because it can get very intense in there. Once I’m in, I’m fine – but experience warns me my body is going to be unhappy in one position for that long. We call it flow.

  • Krithika Rangarajan

    Absolutely brilliant – another fun article! Thanks Blake – a hugeee fan here! 😀