distracted at work
August 14, 2018

Gotta Focus: 5 Ways to Cut Distraction at Work

By Scott Duehlmeier, Senior Manager of Social Media at Workfront


I hesitate to admit how much time I spent trapped in an Internet rabbit hole while attempting to research and write this blog post. These days, it’s a superhuman feat to ignore all the click bait in the sidebars of news sites and the related content at the end of each article, not to mention the intriguing in-line links. And I was not feeling very superhuman today.

And then the irony hit me.

Here I am, trying to pen a piece about the culture of distraction, and I spend hours falling prey to online diversions and unintentional detours? Typical. I blame this one on Fast Company.

As I innocently searched for studies about the effectiveness of open office plans, the hyperlinked opening line of the first article I clicked pulled me into the ether with the strength of a tractor beam: “open office plans enable a subtle kind of sexism.” It was all over from there. But, I managed to extricate myself from all 15 open tabs, reminded once again just how effective the Internet can be at keeping us distracted from the task at hand.

And it’s not just the Internet, although evidence shows it’s actively rewiring our brains (sorry about that link; you don’t have to click it). Distractions are also rampant in the open-office layouts preferred by 70% of U.S. companies (but do click that one, when you’re done reading this). I’m talking about visual distractions, ambient noise, overheard conversations and phone calls, people stopping by to chat, even the annoying clack-clack-clack of a colleague’s keyboard.

So we put on our on noise-cancelling headphones and hyper-focus on the computer screen only to get knocked off our game by email. And social media. And instant messages. And Internet click bait, tempting you with: “You won’t believe what happened 3 seconds after this photo was taken!” What is a poor knowledge worker to do?

Here are my top five tips for surviving—and maintaining personal productivity—in the age of digital distraction.

1. Hyper Curate Your Social Feeds

If you can keep away from social media altogether while at work, more power to you. But the reality is that many of us have jobs that require us to engage with Facebook or Twitter on a regular basis. And we all know what a minefield of distraction that can be; recent figures show that social media accounts for more than 30% of the time we spend online, which translates into about 2 hours and 15 minutes a day. Those hours could almost certainly be spent more productively elsewhere.

Instagram influencer and brand coach Alison Faulkner has suggested treating your social media feed like a garden. Be cautious and intentional about what you plant and where, and vigilantly keep on top of the weeds. In other words, follow those accounts that inform, educate, inspire, and otherwise help you further your personal and professional goals. Unfollow accounts that provoke unproductive behaviors or responses, such as feelings of inferiority, outrage, or the inability to resist clicking. Of course, sprinkling in a healthy mix of novelty and humor as an antidote to all the insider industry news you follow at work can actually boost productivity—as long as it’s not too distracting. And only you can be the judge of how your ability to focus is affected by the content you consume. You might even consider separating your personal from your business accounts, so you can be particularly careful about what catches your eye while you’re trying to focus at work.

2. Mute Your Commute

Manoush Zomorodi, author of the book Bored and Brilliant suggests putting away all devices while you’re on the move, whether you are glued to your smartphone while you’re on the train, listen to news on your drive, or even have a tendency to text while walking to the office. After Zomorodi encouraged participants to try it in an informal study, 88% said they want to adopt the habit permanently, because it helped clear their minds for creative ideas. This practice, in essence, provides a welcome mental break from the constant stimulation that characterizes life in the modern age.

As David Owen wrote in The New Yorker in 2006—back before the smartphone was introduced, mind you: “The first thing many of us do when we find ourselves alone with our thoughts is to read for the handiest means of drowning them out.” There are more ways to drown out thoughts than ever before, and the importance of thinking has certainly not diminished in the age of “fake news,” AI, and near-constant digital disruption.

3. Put it in the Parking Lot

A leadership consultant at a past company I worked for used to designate a section of the whiteboard as the “parking lot” in brainstorm meetings. Whenever an off-topic idea was introduced, or someone was trying to lure the group down a bunny trail, she would write the idea in the parking lot for us to consider later. This practice made it possible to quickly refocus on the matter at hand, since everyone was confident the idea wouldn’t be lost forever. The same idea can be applied on a personal level.

Rich Fernandez, CEO of the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute, suggested in Harvard Business Review to “pause, take stock, be aware that you’re being triggered” by a distraction, “then switch the spotlight of your attention.”

“You don’t have to stifle it or suppress it,” Fernandez continued. “Make note of it, acknowledge it, and put it in a mental parking lot to think about later, when you can discuss it with someone else, or when you’re not at work and have lots to do.”

This is a practice I use when I’m working on a blog post like this one. I keep a “notes” file open alongside the piece I’m writing. Any thought, snippet, idea, or bit of research that isn’t quite fitting into the piece as a whole gets dropped into the notes file. This way, I don’t have to spend time debating whether to delete it permanently, I know it’s there if I want to return to it, and it doesn’t distract me from the immediate goal.

4. Harness Anti-Distraction Technology

Many of today’s knowledge workers spend their days jumping from one application to the next to get their work done. Just for fun, take a look at how many different programs, apps, or tabs are open on your computer right now. Yes, technology quite often is the distraction, but it can also provide the best remedy for distraction. I’m talking here about work management software, which was designed exactly for this purpose—to centralize your work and replace as many of those open apps as possible.

The U.S. State of Work Report reveals that just 27% of knowledge workers use time management or project management software. For everyone else, critical information is fragmented in emails, spreadsheets, instant messaging and collaboration apps, shared documents, review and approval software, internal drives, and elsewhere. This level of fragmentation is bad enough on its own, but there’s another problem. You might pop into your email for a quick second to look for a specific piece of information in your archive, but it’s hard not to let those new, unread emails pull you in. Before long, you can’t remember what you were looking for in the first place. It’s the digital equivalent of finding yourself standing in the middle of your bedroom, with no idea what you went in there for.

But a modern work management solution—or operational system of record—integrates all of this information into a single, comprehensive solution. Collaboration and communication is collected alongside all relevant details and documents, meaning many fewer forays into that unwieldy inbox. “Office workers often glance at their inbox 30 to 40 times an hour,” says author Nicholas Carr in Wired. “Since each glance breaks our concentration and burdens our working memory, the cognitive penalty can be severe.” Imagine what you could accomplish if you could cut that number by half or more.

5. Read Real Books

Carr also reports that “numerous studies—including one that tracked eye movement, one that surveyed people, and even one that examined the habits displayed by users of two academic databases—show that we start to read faster and less thoroughly as soon as we go online.” The more time we spend online, the more we compromise our ability to retain information, to concentrate at length, and to think critically.

According to Tufts University neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf: “The superficial way we read during the day is affecting us when we have to read with more in-depth processing."

Counteract the effects of working in a digital economy by regularly reading good old-fashioned books, the kind made from actual trees. You might even join the “slow reading” movement, started by researchers and book lovers who recommend 30-45 minutes of daily reading away from the distractions of modern technology. “By doing so, the brain can re-engage with linear reading,” says book advocate Rachel Grate. “The benefits of making slow reading a regular habit are numerous, reducing stress and improving your ability to concentrate.” Bonus: it’s also fun.

What Was I Saying Again?

If you’ve ever looked around you at a café or restaurant, seeing table after table of people staring intently at their smartphones instead of each other, you know that distraction is the name of the game these days. And the same thing is happening at the office, although it’s not quite so outwardly obvious, since the same devices we use to complete our work are also optimized to distract us from it. But there are a few simple practices that can protect our productivity against the worst effects of digital distraction. We can carefully curate our social media feeds, set aside at least some time to be alone with our thoughts, intentionally put distractions in a mental or digital parking lot, use work management solutions to keep us out of our inboxes, and—my favorite—immerse ourselves in a good book. I don’t know about you, but Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows: How the Internet is changing the way we read, think and remember is next on my list.


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