Blog Post

Coping with the Culture (and Cost) of Distracted Working

Cornerstone Editors

To work in 2014 is to work distracted. Every employee, from the C-suite to new hires, is distracted to some degree — and the distractions come from all angles: devices that constantly vibrate, beep and (occasionally) ring; a quick glance at Facebook, Twitter or Instagram that offers a respite from the stress; the black hole that is email; environmental distractions such as open workspaces or the office ping pong table; and, of course, the compulsion to multitask.

What's the cost of distracted working on employee productivity — and how can managers coach employees (and themselves) to cope with these distractions? It's not easy, but here are a few ways that successful people stay focused and connected:

Give Up the Juggling Act

Forget work-life balance. Instead, focus on reaching the elusive work-work balance throughout the day. The trick is to balance the benefits of social media and other potential distractions, with their productivity-crushing effects if left unmanaged. And that starts by admitting your multitasking problem.

The human species just isn't wired to multitask. Sure, a small minority of people can pull it off, but the vast majority can't. "There's a small number of people who are decent multitaskers, but at best, it's maybe 10 percent of the population, so chances are, you're not one of them," University of Texas at Austin psychology professor Arthur Markman tells LifeScience.

It's time to give up the song-and-dance. Admit that you're not an effective multitasker, and don't expect your employees to master it, either. Multitasking is an impulse implemented by those who want to seem busy, whether or not they actually do meaningful work. Change that behavior by rewarding employee results, not hours worked.

Distractions Serve a Purpose

If managed properly, Facebook respites and breaks to walk around the block can improve productivity. These low-effort distractions help break the day into chunks and offer a much-needed rest after periods of intense focus. Ilya Pozin, co-founder of social greeting card company Open Me, suggests breaking work into manageable 60-90 minute intervals. "Your brain uses up more glucose than any other bodily activity. Typically you will have spent most of it after 60-90 minutes," writes Pozin in Inc. "So take a break: Get up, go for a walk, have a snack, do something completely different to recharge."

Social media can help companies market their products, engage with customers, and hire prospective employees. Turns out, it can also provide employees with a much-needed break during the work day. Researcher Gloria Mark tells Marketplace that, "Facebook does not require a lot of focus. It's very different from face-to-face interaction, which requires a bit of a commitment. The more of these small interactions through Facebook, the happier people are at the end of the day."

Take Back Your Work Day

Another productivity killer? Allowing colleagues — or even bosses — to dictate your work day. Prioritize your time and know what you need to accomplish each day in order to fulfill expectations. "Most people go right to their emails and start freaking out. You will end up at inbox-zero, but accomplish nothing," says Open Me's Pozin.

This starts first-thing every morning. If you start your day with harried emails and worry about the day's calendar, you've already lost. You'll spend the day putting out other people's fires, instead of doing meaningful work. Avoid the trap.

Lead by Example

Effective managers get the most from their employees by holding themselves to the same (or higher) standard. Don't say one thing, but do the opposite and expect employees to listen. Want employees to be more productive and to not multitask? Show them how it's done. Avoid unnecessary meetings altogether, and be present and engaged during the meetings that are necessary. Business leaders should shut their laptops and put down their phones during meetings.

Remember, the vast majority of people are ineffectual multitaskers — management included. Save that tweet or text for after the meeting — you just might be surprised by how much more work gets done when you're not drifting between activities or fretting about to-dos left undone.

Does anyone remember the time before smartphones, when going to a meeting meant just going to a meeting? It was just you and your little notepad and your brain. Not to suggest that people weren’t distracted at meetings before smartphones existed, but the today’s temptation to tune out is overwhelming with your email, Facebook and YouTube all but a swipe of the index finger away.

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