The mind-boggling cost of distraction to your workplace

pennyProductivity, TIME MANAGEMENT

the cost of distraction in the workplace

How do you determine how productive you are at the end of the day? By how ‘busy’ you were? Or perhaps through the number of crossed-off tasks and milestones reached? It doesn’t matter where you work or what you do, we all deal with a multitude of distractions every day. Distractions cost us a lot of money and time in the workplace amongst other great costs in our daily life. But many of us are unaware of what the cost of distraction means to our unique situation.

For a lot of people, it’s a norm to switch gears alternating between ‘mundane activities’ like checking our emails, viewing social media, and trying to fulfill those important tasks we have outlined.

Before long we find ourselves burned out from all the busyness. The perpetual reaction to distractions, makes us lose control to the point where we no longer have the time, or energy to focus on our personal and professional goals.

It’s no wonder a lot of employees are dealing with immense burnout and enormous dissatisfaction with their work life. Often, it isn’t the work in itself that is the problem, it’s the lack of unawareness of how much those interruptions we have during the day are influencing how we think, stopping us from achieving both personal and professional goals and thereby slowly eroding our confidence and self-worth. 

The world is filled with distractions. But the good news is that we can have some sense of control over most of them Click To Tweet

The economic cost of distraction in the workplace

 Distractions ruin and delay everything and we can actually calculate in terms of time wasted and money lost.

Let’s take for instance a mundane task like sending emails consumes time. According to McKinsey, high-skilled workers spend an estimated 28% of their working hours sending, reading, and replying to email messages. I had CEO coaching client who spend 75% of his time in email. Email is not one of the most productivity activities we can engage in. Inbox Zer0 is a distraction in itself.

Another time-eating activity is checking social media. According to Mashable, Social media costs the U.S economy over $650 billion every year. Mckinsey’s report equally states that if we learned to manage our communication technology efficiently, we could give the U.S economy a $900 million to $1.3 million trillion boost.

If we consider what these figures mean, it certainly shows we are losing a lot of money by not dealing with distractions.

But then distractions are everywhere and it extends beyond email and social media. We live in an environment saturated with distractions as numerous items clamor for our attention. Overall, an average employee gets interrupted about 50 to 60 times per day and over 80% of those interruptions are irrelevant.

The cost of distraction goes beyond economic values 

It’s so easy to calculate the more obvious cost of distraction through time and money. But there’s more to the picture.

Distractions heavily diminish our energy and ability to focus by disrupting the flow of state or momentum required to do deep work. When you respond to numerous distractions such as checking voicemails, sending emails, and even doing laundry, you interrupt the flow of your thought patterns and turn even the quickest tasks into lengthy ones. 

Here’s how it happens;

When you shift gears to respond to an interruption such as checking the latest social media, your mind stops processing what you were already doing. Let’s say it would only take about 20 minutes to run through the latest social media posts. But then, by the time you return, you might find yourself spending an extra 40 minutes trying to gain back the rhythm of work. According to Idonethis on average, we require about 25 minutes to fully refocus after an interruption. 

In the end, you’ve lost a lot more than you realize. Time again provides a decent picture of the loss. But that’s the least of it.

When we abandon that task in front of us to attend to other tasks, we lose momentum, focus, and other resources. Returning to that task, we might spend far too much trying to re-assemble those resources again to address the loss of momentum. This leads to an exhausting and frustrating cycle.

Distraction limits productivity

When we change focus ten times in an hour (which a study has shown to be possible), your productive thinking becomes a fraction of what’s possible. They say the impact is equivalent 3x worse than smoking marijuan. Even so, the more complicated your project, the longer it takes to regain momentum after being distracted, and the higher the levels of stress and frustrations. Not to mention the extra hours you work to overcompensate and get the work done.

So, when you toggle between work tasks and frivolous distractions, your performance will suffer.

Hence, distractions cause a monumental loss in productivity. This is because, by the time we are back to the deep work, we have less energy than we had before. This diminishes our ability to recall, understand, decide, memorize and inhibit. Distractions can even cause us to lose relevant insights and forget good ideas. It might even lead us to make critical mistakes on important tasks. 

Alternatively, if we can minimize distractions and create avenues to reinforce that flow of state, we can achieve up to 5 times more productivity.


Distractions limit our ability to think

Distractions won’t just limit the flow of thought, it stops us from being able to think. The constant motion and stimulation would make it difficult to slow down when necessary to really understand what’s in front of us.

Take, for instance, that email with important work details. We often find ourselves reading in 20-second bursts and soon we are putting out work that does not fully expand on the details required. Because our time is splintered, we no longer give ourselves the much-needed time to think, understand and even form an opinion. 

A study by the University of London further discovered that we lose as many as 10 IQ points for merely responding to distractions from emails and text messages. Another study on students showed that spending time on Facebook led to struggles with academic work. A different study by Michigan State University even discovered that more interruptions also equals more errors, even when the distraction only takes less than three seconds.

It’s quite clear that distractions are devastating to our brain chemistry and the ability to deliver high-level work. In the end our output and work performance suffers.

The cost of distraction on our health

Distractions also cause enormous stress, anxiety, and depression.

Not sure how that happens? It isn’t easy to see the erosion of our self-confidence and emotional well-being when we deliberately switch to something else such as checking our social media accounts. If that interruption were to come from a colleague, we might easily channel that resentful feeling to that person that interrupted us. 

Constant distractions make us more stressed, we feel a lack of control we have over our work. It is a health hazard that increases the risks of anxiety and depression. It acts like losing a whole night of sleep and lowers our tolerance, distractions then trigger aggravation and stress. As a result, we find ourselves making the poor choices even about the food and drinks we ingest every day. 

Distractions even erode our relationships as it reduces our ability to have important and nuanced conversations. Consider what happens when we can’t think, understand and form an opinion during conversations. Being in a state of distracted we are disconnected and aren’t really listening. It’s harder to respond in a thoughtful manner which altogether erodes how we communicate with others. Hence interruptions are not just the root of many work issues but home-related issues too.

How to overcome distraction in the workplace 

Overcoming workplace distractions is highly necessary, but there’s no straightforward path to doing so. A 2018 Udemy study outlines some suggestions by employees for combating distractions such as flexible hours, training, designated quiet and noisy spaces, and lots more. But there’s a lot more. Let’s look at some possible steps to help control or mitigate distractions so that your people can do their jobs more efficiently.

1. Identify workplace distractions  

 A University of California- Irvine study discovered that over 50% of distractions are self-induced. Hence, the first step to dealing with distractions is understanding what precisely gets you distracted.  The first step would be initiating a conversation with your team to identify distractions.  Try this distraction quiz I created

Although the situation is unique to everyone, the biggest offenders are:

  • Always-on digital tools on our phones, desktops, and watches: We find ourselves responding to the endless notifications and pinks that interrupt our day. A survey by ZDNet shows that these pings and notifications cause about 68% of us to switch apps about 10 times an hour. That’s a lot of continuous partial attention that brings too many obstructions to our workflow.
  •  The wrong work environment: According to a 2019 survey, 65% of people stated that noise influenced their ability to complete work. But, it’s important to realize that minimizing noise alone or controlling the sounds around you isn’t enough. Some people have automatically thought that working from home is the answer to workplace distractions. But even an unstructured home environment has its own set of distractions. What you need to do is to create a high-powered work environment.
  • Meetings: Meetings are by far the biggest work-related time wasters in the workplace. A study by Accelo shows that it takes up to 15.5 hours of an average employer’s weekly schedule and even higher for companies dealing with a lot of obstacles in remote collaboration. Check out this article for deeper insights into optimizing your meetings to save time and get more work done.
  •  Procrastination: Procrastination is also a form of distraction. Although light procrastination might seem harmless, the limits on productivity are a lot bigger. Consider how we often spend time “cyberloafing” as we scroll through social media and read the latest news. We might seem to be gaining information, when in fact we are spending time that should be used for more valuable productive work.
  •   Colleagues: Our colleagues can also become distractions and this isn’t limited to the traditional office environment, it can equally happen remotely especially when we misuse instant messaging apps, emails, and company-oriented connection apps.

distractions in the workplace statistics 

2. Invest in technology tools that help you deal with overload

You need to “fight fire with fire”. This means using tools that will help automate how you respond to distractions. For instance, instead of trying to read every email, consider setting rules and filters to ensure only the most important messages reach you right away. Other tools include posting schedulers, automatic time tracking tools, anti-distraction apps, newsreaders, and lots more. But then just adding new digital tools won’t do so much if there’s no structure to using them. You need to combine cultural changes and digital technology to create an operating model that is easy to follow. 

3. Leverage flexible schedules and remote work

Flexible work arrangements are crucial to employee retention. They also help employees control their workspace in a way that eliminates most distractions. For instance, if you allowed employees to alternate their workspaces. They will have more control over the environment they choose for their work. For instance, they could use the office or the general working space for less valuable tasks and take advantage of dedicated workspaces or their home office for meaningful tasks. 

4. Practice good meeting management 

Every workplace, whether remote, on-site, or hybrid, must take steps to optimize meetings. Here are some actions you can take right away to manage meetings:

  •         Always use a clear and concise meeting agenda
  •         Ban unplanned meetings about non-urgent issues
  •         Only have meetings with the appropriate people.
  •         Reduce standard meeting times to 45 min
  •         Institute no-meeting days.

good meeting management  

5. Provide training on time management

Learning the art of time management is one of the best ways to combat distractions and optimize productivity. As a keynote speaker, I have helped teams implement unique time management techniques such as using the prioritization matrix, batch work, 80/20 rule, delegating, and time blocking to manage distractions effectively. It’s important to note that no two-work environments are the same. So, every team requires its own set of rules and principles to follow.

6. Email management is also crucial

Email remains one of the biggest sources of distraction in the workplace. Hence, you must leverage techniques to ensure that you aren’t losing time by using emails. There are many strategies you can implement such as using email filters, imbibing the Eisenhower Principle in prioritizing email response, batch checking emails, and lots more.

7. Be cautious about micro-managing your team

One of the most critical tenets of leadership is knowing when you need to let go and allow your team to take ownership. But then constantly keeping tabs on ongoing work can be a distraction in itself. Such disruptions will build resentment, destroy trust and stifle creativity and self-growth

8. Help your team take breaks

Breaks might seem counterproductive. But it’s actually an important tool to help deal with work stress and fatigue. Breaks will also ensure that when you finally return to work, you are fully energized and can give that work the focus and concentration required.  

Employees need to realize breaks aren’t necessarily time to catch on on social media, emails, and other tasks we often use them. We must realize that after deep work, we also need a deeply refreshing break away from everything. Here’s how Cal Newport, author of Deep Work: Rules of Focused Success in a Distracted World, describes what a deep break is. He states that deep breaks:

  •  Should not introduce anything that is complex, stressful, and time-consuming
  • Should not involve any task that relates loosely to the deep work
  • Should not involve anything that triggers self-distraction rituals such as cycling through a certain sequence of websites or apps
  •  Should not turn your attention to something you can’t fulfill during your break

And most importantly, it should not be longer than 15 minutes.

8. Be Proactive

Breaks might seem counterproductive. But it’s actually an important tool to help deal with work stress and fatigue. Breaks will also ensure that when you finally return to work, you are fully energized and can give that work the focus and concentration required.  

David O’Brien rightly states talks about the distraction paradox. He says that “workplace distractions are driven in one way or another by the pursuit of competitive advantage” – meaning we have created many of these distraction and we can also remove them when we are aware of them.  I speak to audiences around the world creating a weighted awareness around those distractors and talk about ownership systems called  gatekeepers that help us be proactive. You have heard of the gatekeeper if you have ever worked in sales. That is the name of the assistant to the CEO that keeps you from getting on their calendars for an appointment. So the goal of the salesperson is to get past the gatekeepers. I realized we all need gatekeepers. Gatekeepers can be 1.RULES we put in place to reduce decision fatigue and make keep us on track, 2. FILTERS  are like the assistants that keep distractions out before they distract and how we use our 3. Environment to support compliance. Gatekeepers help you own your actions and your distractions.

The mind-boggling cost of distraction to your workplace Click To Tweet

Final thoughts

The cost of distraction is a lot more than the time wasted that can be automatically translated into the financial cost. In addition to money, distraction also costs us everything from limiting our ability to connect with others, think deeply, solve harder problems and even switch off effectively. We can choose to refocus our attention on what’s in our control, so we are no longer reacting to distractions but being proactive about it.