By SANDY CLARKE
In our task-rich, time-poor work culture, many of us can feel like we have so many plates spinning that it’s almost impossible to keep on top of it all.
As a result, we try to juggle as much as possible, to multitask in an effort to manage our bulging workload.
We are, in many cases, mired in a swamp of busyness that sees us attending meetings, dealing with emails, taking phone calls, sorting through admin, putting out fires, engaging with colleagues all before we get to make a start on the important tasks of the day.
Despite the many advantages brought to us by technologies such as smartphones, email, and instant messaging, we are surrounded by a smorgasbord of distractions that serve to diminish our ability to get into a state of flow and focus on producing quality work over a concentrated period of time.
To get a sense of this, the next time you read a lengthy article or a book, or when you next watch a TV show or movie, observe how many times you check your phone for messages or use it to quickly scan social media feeds for no particular reason.
Our inability to focus has a profound effect on both our personal and professional lives which isn’t the best news for business, given that so much time is lost to unproductive busyness that eats up company hours.
A study by sociology professor Judy Wajcman at the London School of Economics observed 18 employees at an Australian telecoms company throughout their workday.
It was a typical telecoms outfit, the offices were open-planned, facilitating ease of interaction, and it had large TV screens mounted on the walls projecting various pieces of information. In other words, the potential for distraction was extremely high.
The study discovered that the employees spent approximately half their work day on “work episodes”, essentially people doing any actual work.
The majority of these “episodes” lasted fewer than 10 minutes, with the average episode lasting around three minutes.
It was also found that almost two-thirds of work episode interruptions were self-generated by the employees, and most of the interruptions involved the use of tech devices.
A similar study by ClearContext found that over half of the 250 people surveyed had spent more than two hours each day reading and responding to emails.
Researchers at Loughborough University discovered that, after taking two minutes to deal with an email, observed workers took 68 seconds to return to their main task and regain focus on what they were doing prior to the distraction.
By continually dipping in and out of tasks, we cut off our productivity, which significantly increases the time it takes to get work done.
In many organisations, an inadvertent culture of distraction is fostered thanks, in part, to open-plan offices that allow for constant communication and, inevitably, interruptions to people’s work.
While conversations in the workplace can help to create a positive environment, too much of a good thing can potentially (along with other distractions) create problems in terms of the quality and quantity of work being produced in a day.
Inevitably, this might lead to people having to take work home, which impacts on their personal lives and can cause unnecessary stress from always being mentally switched-on to their work.
To help counter this work-tech imbalance, organisations can help people in a number of ways, including the provision of ‘quiet zones’ where people can go if they really need to focus on getting their work done.
Leaders can also implement initiatives such as a “no emails” policy during weekends and holidays, which can help to ensure employees get some time to mentally ‘clock-off’.
Employees can help themselves by setting fixed time periods where they are fully focused on a particular task and by politely making it known to colleagues who fancy a quick gossip session that they don’t wish to be disturbed.
Checking email could also be restricted to two or three times in the working day, with less urgent emails being marked for reply at a more convenient time.
Distractions in the workplace are killers of time. They’re also devilishly tempting and can whisk the best of us away from that deadline we’re now rushing to meet.
By making a conscious effort to set out our time each day and to stick to our assigned periods of focused work, we can put ourselves in a place of greater control over how our time and energy is spent.
Consequently, we will be better able to get through those urgent jobs and effectively manage the less-important tasks that previously devoured our time.
Sandy is a freelance writer based in Malaysia, and previously enjoyed 10 years as a journalist and broadcaster in the UK. He has been fortunate to gain valuable insights into what makes us tick, which has deepened his interests in leadership, emotions, mindfulness, and human behaviour.