Distraction Faction


“It’s incredibly hard to get meaningful work done when your workday has been shredded into work moments.” – Jason Fried


All businesses are busy places, or at least they should be. Over the years, I have worked in a variety of environments in the private, public and non-profit sectors—restaurants, catering, retail, academia, non-profits, other office settings—and they have all been busy in their own way. However, I have found that office jobs are hands-down the most distracting workplaces in which to function, but some really take the cake. In my experience, the working environment in restaurants, catering and retail jobs are basically orchestrated chaos, but everyone has clearly defined roles and specific tasks to accomplish daily with an amazing amount of teamwork. In those work environments, there is little need to have quiet time to think. As a fry cook, for instance, I never asked my boss to turn off the music or asked everyone to stop talking so I could focus on breading chicken tenders and watching them cook for seven minutes. It just isn’t that type of environment. The same is true in catering and retail workplaces. 


Unlike production-oriented jobs, I have found that most office jobs require time to concentrate on tasks and projects, uninterrupted. Everyone knows this, and yet this notion is deeply offensive to those who are disruptive, especially disruptive bosses. I once worked in an office where I found the only way I could get dedicated time to think, uninterrupted, was to arrive at work very early in the morning before everyone else, just so I could have a couple of hours to focus on tasks requiring concentration. This worked out fine for a short period of time, until everyone else decided they were going to come to work early, too. While I appreciated their enthusiasm, it foiled my plans to have time to concentrate. So, instead I ended up working eight to ten hours in the office every day, then I would go home and spend several more hours, off the clock, working on all the tasks requiring concentration; tasks I simply could not accomplish during those eight to ten hours in the office which were riddled with constant interruptions.


My experience is not unique. I have read a number of work-related books that cite workplace interruptions and distractions as the biggest killers of workers’ productivity, energy and satisfaction. Basecamp co-founders Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson cover this topic extensively in their book, “It Doesn’t Have to be Crazy at Work.” Further, Jonathan Spira, author of “Overload! How Too Much Information Is Hazardous To Your Organization,” revealed the U.S. economy loses more than $1 trillion annually due to lost productivity and rushed errors caused by workplace distractions. This lost productivity can be attributed to a wide range of factors, but in my own experience, as well as the experiences colleagues have shared with me, plus what I have read in management books, one of the biggest culprits of lost time at work is meetings—both impromptu and scheduled meetings the subject of which could easily be covered in an email, but instead turn into an in-depth conversation typically controlled by one or two people who dominate the dialogue to the exclusion of others’ input.


Other common productivity killers in the modern workplace include over collaboration, poor prioritization and time management on the part of one employee whose ineffectiveness becomes the problem of a more organized employee, as well as instant messengers provided by employers to enhance collaboration. In addition, employees lose focus as a result of interruptions from their own personal instant messengers, text messages, social media, phone calls and general ‘pop-ins’ by coworkers for chatting. That’s just the tip of the iceberg, when you consider the barrage of loud conversations and music/tv/online videos that are so common in shared workspaces.


The software and collaboration tool company, Atlassian, created an infographic about this topic demonstrating that employees experience 56 interruptions in a typical eight hour work day. That is seven interruptions per hour for varying lengths of time. Further, it takes the average person 23 minutes to recover on a task they were working on before the interruption, according to a University of California-Irvine study. Granted, some interruptions are part of working; we have to answer phone calls and emails and meet with others from time to time, and we should take breaks to keep our minds fresh. But being disrupted 56 times during an eight-hour period spells frustration for your workforce and disaster for your company. Not because the work isn’t being done, in most cases it is being done in a very rushed fashion because the employee knows it must be complete but now they have to do it in a much shorter period of time which results in careless errors. But most importantly, your human resources are your most valuable asset and you should take good care of them. The University of California-Irvine study also indicates that being disrupted repeatedly leads to frustration, stress and poor health. I don’t think I need to provide supporting evidence to demonstrate that stress is harmful to the human body; We have all experienced it in some shape or form in our lives. You don’t want a self-inflicted dissatisfied and sick workforce, do you?


The bottom-line is this: how much do you value your employees and your business? If the answer is “a lot” you should determine if distractions are an issue at your company and, if they are, develop a process for mitigating those disruptions so your staff can accomplish their responsibilities within the framework of a standard workday. Hopefully you can foster an environment that is more mindful and less mind full. If you want to fix this problem, email us, we can help!