A Focus on Distraction in the Workplace

Spacing out at workSo what’s on your mind? I mean, right now?  If you’re reading this article, maybe you’re thinking about this article. But how focused are you on these words? How many times will you be distracted from reading, or trail off onto some other thought?

Distraction has become the scourge of the business world. One study showed that the typical office worker in the US gets about 11 minutes of continuous focus on a task before some interruption. Those intrusions can include among many others, co-workers, electronic devises (emails, texts), attempts at multitasking, and most of all, intrusive thoughts.

The average American worker admits to “wasting” about 3 hours of a typical 8 hour work day (not including lunch breaks). And what is distracting us?

  • 44% of survey workers cited web surfing
  • 23% said co-worker interruptions on non-work-related matters
  • 77% admitted to using Facebook while “working”
  • 91% said personal issues, worries, stresses and problems out-side of work
  • About 5% said they just, “space out”

 

These statistics about our actual productivity, while startling to many business owners, is not surprising to mental health experts that understand how our brains work.

Researchers are discovering that intended or “willful thought,” that is, the things we intend to focus on (like work activities) are processed differently and in a different part of the brain than “automatic-thought,” those things that grab our attention. Humans are hard-wired to respond to outside stimulus and these involuntary thought-processes override what we are intentionally thinking about.

The best thing workers can do is to create an environment where interruptions are minimized, and make a conscience effort to not allow un-productive, non-worked-related activities to become part of our “willful” thoughts (such as going on Facebook to begin with).

Intrusive thoughts as a result of worry, stress, anxiety and others, can be more difficult to manage. While many of the things we experience in our lives can create stress and anxiety, it is usually the time we devote to thinking about them that derails our focus, not the actual issue itself. By learning to act and think differently we can usually improve our focus and productivity, and we end up feeling better about ourselves.

Some tips for improving include:

  • Keep an organized space. Both at home and in the office, when things are organized not only are we more productive, but it reduces distractions and improves our sense of control over our environment.
  • Make a To-Do list each day or weekly. Your list should prioritize what must be done versus what can wait. Make sure the list is realistic and accomplishable in the time you have. Checking things off the list gives a sense of accomplishment and progress, while also keeping you focused on what’s important for the day.
  • Practice good time management. Good time managers break up their day and week into chucks of time devoted to specific activities. One chuck is devoted to working on a specific project, another to retuning or making calls, and maybe another to catching up on small administrative tasks. The key to good time management is staying committed to your blocks of time – and making sure others respect that time.
  • Keep personal time in its place but make the time. Studies show that working longer hours doesn’t generate the additional output as we may think. Worker productivity drops off dramatically after 8 hours. Continuously working long hours dramatically reduces the overall productivity. Rather than spending 10 or 11 hours on the job each day and working through weekends, commit to focusing on work during a normal 8 -hour day. Designate your personal time to resting and energizing, and enjoying the fruits of your labor.
  • Read more. Reading is an excellent exercise for improving focus. Spending 20 to 30 minutes a day on uninterrupted reading helps the brain to practice focus. It doesn’t matter what you read as long as you’re fully engaged in what you’re reading.
  • Don’t procrastinate. Schedule the things you don’t look forward to doing and get them done when it’s scheduled. Not only will you feel a sense of accomplishment, but you’ll eliminate the pressure and added distraction of having things “to do” that you’re not doing.
  • Don’t multitask so much. Despite the trend in the last few decades of “multitasking” as a positive work characteristic or “skill,” research shows that we simply don’t multitask as well as we think we do. Rather, we rapidly rotate our attention and focus from one activity to another, doing everything a little less well. While multitasking is fine if we’re folding laundry while watching TV, it’s more problematic when we need to complete a project on time, solve a complex problem, or think creatively. Attention and focus is a better approach.

 

Distractions come from many sources. Things that can help us to stay focused include changing our environment, our behavior and our thinking. Often we can make small changes easily on our own. Larger distractions may be more difficult to manage and may require help.

If you find yourself frequently distracted, stressed or overwhelmed, and are looking for ways to improve the situation, give Capital EAP a call. Whether better time management or managing stress, our counselors are trained in many techniques that can help you to find greater focus, and happiness, in your life.