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True distractions or Why people can’t get work done at work

Distraction free quiet zone sign

Distractions happen in life and at work all the time. But it is the type of distraction that affects and truly distracts us.  Work is based off the idea that people need to be in the same place together to get work done. Offices are built off this idea. Supply all the things employees need (desks, computers, programs, kitchens, etc.) in one place and people will do good work. But if you ask people where they do their best work, they will hardly ever say ‘the office’. This is a problem and one we need to fix.

Where do YOU get good work done?

If you ask people they will likely say one of three places: a location/place/room – the spare room, kitchen, coffee shop, basement; a moving object – a train or plane; or a specific time – early in the morning or late at night. We have employees spending 8hrs a day at the office, yet this is not where they say they get their best work done.

At the office you spend a lot of time dividing your work day into moments. 15 minutes here, 30 minutes there, an hour devoted to this project, or that task. Then your attention gets pulled away from your current work in order to do something else that takes priority.  Suddenly it is 5 pm and you feel like you didn’t get any meaningful work done.

If you look at creative professions, like Graphic Designers or Architects, they are generally able to spend long stretches of time working on a problem without interruption. You wouldn’t expect them to solve a problem within 15 minutes, would you? Truly, you cannot fully plumb the depth of any problem or issue in a short period of time. So why is this viewed differently in an office environment? This fragmentation of focus is one reason office employees feel they get more work done when no one is around.

Sleep and work are phase events

When you go to sleep, you don’t put your head on the pillow and instantly fall into REM sleep. This is something that you work towards through the different stages of sleep. If you get interrupted along the way, you are not able to pick up where you were and carry on. Instead, you need to start a few phases back and work your way to sleep again. Thought works the same way.

Does anyone expect you to sleep well if you are interrupted all night? No one would say yes. So why do we expect people to do good work if they are interrupted all day at the office? People will never get their best work done if they are constantly interrupted, and yet this is the expectation in most work environments.

It’s not true distractions if it is voluntary

Managers have often said that they don’t want people working from home due to all the distractions. Sometimes managers also feel that if they can’t see their employee, they can’t be assured of their productivity. However, though locations which aren’t the office do still have interruptions, they are generally not true distractions as they are voluntary ones.

You decide when you want to be distracted. You choose to turn the TV on, or go for a walk, or make coffee. When working from home, no one is distracting you by inviting you to the kitchen while they make you a smoothie. Although, it would be nice if that happened. While at work, almost all the distractions are involuntary.

Social Media is the modern day smoke break

People often think that Facebook and Twitter are distractions at work. Some companies even go so far as to block or monitor these sites at work. Saying that work can’t be don’t because of Facebook is a little ridiculous. 10 years ago no one cared if employees took a 15 minute smoke break. We should view Social media as the modern day equivalent.

When you are working from home you have a lot of the same distractions. What we need to look at are the distractions that you don’t have at home and only find in the office. These are the real problems.

The Manager distraction

Managers have an important part to play in the office. They are there to make sure that work gets done, and gets done correctly. The distraction problem arises as Managers are working to their own schedule and it may not be the same as employees’. A Manager could be interrupting at the worst time possible for you. Should you be in the middle of a complicated task, that interruption can set you back hours.

At the office you are distracted by your email or IM pings at the time of your choice, but you cannot ignore or quit your Manager. In fairness, a Manager’s job is to talk to their employees. But it is how those conversations happen that makes all the difference.

A smart Manager will notice when an employee has their head down and is typing away furiously at the speed of light, and know this is not the time to interrupt them. Try passive communication (email or IM) instead of face to face. And within that communication, ask them to chat only once they are free. You are not only being respectful of the work they are doing, you are also allowing them to give you their full attention when you chat.

The meeting distraction

Let’s be honest and admit that most meetings aren’t to talk about work, it is to talk about the work that you should be doing later. This can be fine when the conversation is kept short and succinct; more of a touch base between colleagues to make sure everything is on track. However, this starts to become a problem when you have meetings to discuss what will be needed in the next meeting, and so on, and so on. Or worse, when a meeting is called spontaneously! You are, essentially, asking 10 people to stop doing their work no matter what they are currently working on. Not only is this incredibly disruptive, but it is actually very expensive for the company as well.

We think of a one hour meeting as ‘costing’ one hour of time. And it would be – if there was only one person in that meeting. But ten people in a meeting equals 10 hours of time. That’s quite a lot of productivity lost for an organisation to have one meeting. If a meeting can be handled by two to three people talking for a couple of minutes, or – even better – by email, then that is what should happen.

If you have the power, cancel those in-between meetings – the ones where you meet to plan for the meeting. Instead go for a quick meeting walk around the office with the person you need to make a decision with. You will both make decisions quicker. As an added bonus, by moving you will be avoiding physical stress too.

No Talk Tuesdays

The best gift you can give someone in the office is uninterrupted time. Imagine if once a month, you did No Talk Tuesdays, where, for a whole day you could only use passive communication, and you weren’t allowed to talk to one another unless the building was on fire. Maybe that is a bit extreme. What if it was just for the afternoon? The amount of work accomplished in a 4hr period could be tremendous if no one could interrupt anyone else.

Designated gossip breaks

Let’s not lie to ourselves, you talk to your co-workers about none work things. You spend 40 hours a week with them – it’s going to happen. But what if the only time it was acceptable for a co-worker to stop by was between 10 am – 11 am? During this time everyone would be free to stop by for chats, and employees could spend that hour doing the tasks that truly aren’t affected by distractions. You get to catch up, while mundane tasks that normally get pushed off actually get done.

Asking for a time out

Closing your office door rarely works. If your office knows that you close your door when you don’t want to be disturbed, but you never remember to open it again, they stop assuming that you are actually asking to not be disturbed. Seems counterintuitive but it is true. What if there was a universal signal in your office that lets everyone know you needed a time out from interruptions? Maybe it’s a red pylon on your desk, or you wear the office jersey everyone secretly despises. Whatever it is, if everyone knows and uses the same signal, there can be no mistake in what you are asking for. So when they see you wearing your company’s luminous yellow golf tee, you are guaranteed to get the time you need to finish your financial report.


Perhaps the above examples are going to the extreme. That being said, they shouldn’t be dismissed without second thought. We have spent centuries ingraining office distractions in to our every day. Though it might take some unorthodox changes to affect the distractions that impact our quality and quantity of work, it would be well worth it for the productive hours we would be buying back for ourselves.

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