How Distractions Affect Productivity

a year ago   •   4 min read

By Zero Machina

Workplace distractions are more than just a nuisance.

Studies show that the average worker experiences up to 56 distractions a day. Both internal and external distractions have the power to completely derail us, jeopardizing our productivity and impairing our focus. Even the seemingly harmless distractions aren't quite that innocent—they quietly waste your time and cost you valuable minutes, hours, and days.

Let's take a closer look at how distractions affect productivity, and what we can do to regain our focus.

The Big Deal About Distractions

According to a study from the University of California Irvine, being distracted at work has a significant negative influence on employee productivity.

After shadowing workers around the office, they found that it takes an employee on average 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back on task after getting distracted.  While this may not seem like a lot at first glance, it quickly adds up. Just 10 distractions a day is almost 4 hours of unfocused work. Imagine being distracted 56 times a day...

It’s no wonder we’re struggling to get work done. Want to focus for about an hour without feeling distracted? Good luck.

But to most of us, the impact of distractions isn’t a mystery.

Most of us know work-related distractions are killing our performance.  In fact, a survey conducted by Vouchercloud found that the average worker admits to only getting, on average, 2 hours and 53 minutes of productive work done throughout the day.  Internet distractions, office environments, and tech distractions are the most common distractions.

You may find similar results if you audit how productive you are throughout the day.

To make distractions more problematic, they also affect performance.

A team of scientists from George Mason University conducted a study on this very topic. The team tasked 54 college students to outline and write three essays. They would perform this within three different "interruption conditions."  During condition 1, they'd be interrupted during the outline phase. During condition 2, they'd be interrupted during the writing phase. And during condition 3, there would be no interruptions.

They found that the quality of work was significantly worse in both interruption conditions compared to the non-interrupted condition.

People are losing the capacity to bring their full focus to the task at hand. Soon, basic tasks will be tough to complete without common workplace distractions dragging you down.

With all this information, it's clear why managing distractions is critical if we want to boost productivity.

How to Manage Distractions

Distractions aren't going anywhere.

In fact, they're only going to get worse as technology advances. The key is to learn how to be proactive and manage them. There are two basic types of distractions:

  • Internal distractions. These involve personal challenges–hunger, exhaustion, or boredom. These factors make it hard to focus, often creating a downward spiral of poor behavior.
  • External distractions. These are conditions in your environment—relationships, work conditions, or other environmental factors. Urgent emails or phone calls fall in this category. Although we have less control over these, we can still take preventative measures.

Here are a few tips to help.

Dealing With Internal Distractions

The first step is to identify your internal distractions.

There are a few different types:

  • Physical distractions (e.g. exhaustion, fatigue, and health challenges that make you susceptible to distractions).
  • Emotional distractions  (e.g. stress, anxiety, and other negative feelings that rob you of energy and focus).
  • Mental distractions (e.g. boredom, daydreaming, or ruminating on thoughts that move you away from the task at hand).

Once you know what yours are, you can proactively resolve them. Then you'll have much more control over internal triggers that could spiral into endless distractions.

The best way to deal with physical distractions is by taking care of yourself. This includes getting enough sleep, eating healthy foods, and exercising regularly.

To combat emotional distractions, it's important to find healthy coping mechanisms. This looks different for everyone, but some examples include journaling, meditation, or talking to a therapist.

And finally, to deal with mental distractions, try to find ways to make your work more interesting and engaging. This might mean setting clear goals and incentives, breaking up large projects into smaller tasks, or brainstorming ways to make your work more enjoyable.

Using your proactive muscles, you can reduce the impact of internal distractions and take back control over your focus.

Dealing With External Distractions

The next step is to identify and manage external distractions.

This is a bit more difficult because we have less control over the environment. But there are still some things we can do to minimize its impact.

You usually know in advance when external distractions will occur–for instance, scheduled meetings.  So you can plan your work schedule around these events. Create work blocks that don't bleed into the times that you're supposed to be having meetings or fulfilling other obligations.

This is actually why we created Undock, so we could make scheduling meetings and managing time more seamless. It empowers you to suggest meeting times based on your availability and preferences.

Another way to combat external distractions is to set boundaries for yourself and others.

This includes things like turning off notifications, setting office hours, or letting people know when you're unavailable. You can also try to create a more distraction-free environment for yourself: this might mean working in a quiet space, using noise-canceling headphones, or turning off electronics when they're not needed.

Distractions are a part of life, but that doesn't mean they have to control us. By being aware of the different types of distractions and how they impact us, we can start to take steps to minimize them.

Next Steps

Once we understand what our distractions are costing us, we can begin implementing some proactive changes. And perhaps, we can prevent distractions before they create negative consequences.

Want to learn more about the power of focus? Check out our article: 15 Key Takeaways From the Deep Work Method—Boost Your Performance and Productivity.

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