Simple Ways to Manage Workplace Distractions

We know that today’s technology has connected us to our jobs in ways that can feel like we’re 24/7 employees. As leaders of teams or organizations, it’s even more acute.

Research tells us that

the average American office worker can’t work more than an average of three minutes without being interrupted.

We are also in front of a screen more than ever – an average of 8.5 hours per day – and we only stay on a webpage for an average of ten seconds!


At workFocus Good, Multitasking Bad

Distractions are everywhere and, although we are connecting workers more efficiently than ever, we have become less productive. As a result,

we have mistakenly concluded that multitasking is a necessity produced by a “do more with less” economy.

In fact, recent research results tell us that

it takes 25% longer to complete something when we’re trying to multitask and we are more likely to make errors.  

It’s easy to see how this negative cycle feeds on itself and creates unneeded stress.


What mindful leadership skills can be used to break that cycle?

First, we must accept that multitasking is a misnomer. We’re really not able to put all of our attention toward two or more tasks simultaneously. Instead, we bounce between tasks, not fully focused and doing both poorly due to the distraction of the ones we just left.

Trying to multitask is the equivalent of having a shot of tequila before driving home from work.

Both slow our decision-making ability and increase the likelihood of bad things happening. If multitasking is part of your company’s culture, you have the responsibility as a leader to break that cycle.

Distractions occur more frequently when people feel like they have more work to accomplish and not enough time in which to complete it.

Let’s look at some simple processes that exist in your workplace that might contribute to distractions.


Meeting Mania

We all know that participants start getting squirmy in the last 5-10 minutes of meetings. One cause of that squirminess is that they hope it will end soon enough for them to get to their next obligation on time. An easy solution is to change those hour-long meetings to fifty minutes so that everyone can relax knowing they’ll have plenty of time afterwards to get where they are going (but be a stickler about starting and ending on time).

Speaking of meetings, many of today’s leaders are asking employees to relinquish their phones prior to starting. A “phone basket” is placed at a table by the door for drop-offs (pretend you’re going to a party at Prince Harry’s!). Obviously, arrangements need to be made in case of potential emergencies (e.g., the husband waiting for his pregnant wife to go into labor) but these expectations of focus help create a culture where technology is used appropriately and doesn’t distract us from the work at hand.

For comprehensive training modules on leadership development topics such as this, please visit our Solutions page.




Other Solutions

Are you one of those people who says,

“if it’s not on my calendar, it’s not happening”?

I know I am. Here are some of the ways I’ve learned how to make that work to my advantage when it comes to distractions:

  • When working on a project, turn off email previews and silence your phone. Those are two of the biggest workplace distractions.
  • Schedule time to take breaks and get away from your desk in order to replenish your energy reservoir. Pushing through and not giving yourself any downtime actually drains that energy supply and leads to burn out. In addition, without regular breaks, we become more susceptible to the distractions around us.
    • Take a brief walk.
    • Engage a colleague in a non-work-related conversation.
    • Have a (healthy) snack.

These break up the day and allow us to stay more focused when we resume working. Put those five-minute breaks on your calendar with reminders to ensure you actually do it.

  • Schedule specific times to read email and let other people know when that is. That helps create a culture where people know that they don’t need to be on edge waiting for an instantaneous response from you and allows you to stay on task and not lured away by the evil Inbox.
  • Let people know that, as a leader, you don’t expect an instant response to your emails unless you designate it as such (e.g., put “911” in the Subject line or…I don’t know…maybe actually call them?? I know — radical, right?). By doing so, they know they won’t have to be constantly distracted by trying to figure out when to reply.
  • And finally, although this may sound blasphemous to some, don’t tell people that your “door is always open”. Instead, be very clear how important it is for you to be completely focused when you have a conversation with any work colleague and that you don’t want the distraction of pending work to dilute your attention.  Setting aside office hours like a university professor is one technique that allows you to put your potential distractions aside and lets your colleagues know that your time is dedicated to quality interactions with them. They will appreciate feeling valued by their boss.

Research tells us that our minds are wandering nearly half of our waking hours and even more frequently at work. That’s a different post for another day but it’s clear that our “monkey minds” are racing most of the time and our mind’s default switch is set on **UNFOCUSED**.

To the extent that we can control our distractions, our individual and organizational productivity and quality of work can improve quickly.


Mindful Follow-Up Questions

  • How often is your work interrupted by situations that you could control better?
  • What’s the first thing you could change today that would result in fewer distractions?
  • Is multitasking seen as a positive or a negative in your workplace?
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