About every three minutes, you are interrupted at work. Text message chimes, new email alerts, social media updates, and distractions from co-workers elicit a knee-jerk response that takes you away from productivity, and more importantly, away from deep-level, strategic thinking.
It goes without saying that these ubiquitous distractions make mistakes more likely to happen.
“Many adults perceive they can work well when they are multitasking, but when you study their performance, they have a high rate of errors. It’s more difficult than they think it is,” says Phillip Brantley, education division director for Pennington Biomedical Research Center.
Quantifying the amount of dollars lost for companies is difficult because many of us believe replying quickly to that short email or text is part of doing our job well. What we do know, however, is that on average it takes about 23 minutes to return to where you left off on a project after being interrupted.
In a study conducted at an information technology company, Gloria Mark, a professor at UC Irvine’s Department of Informatics, collected data on a variety of employees’ workflow throughout the day. The results showed that employees who were constantly interrupted worked faster in anticipation of the next interruption. However, their speed came at the cost of more stress, frustration and effort.
Study participants identified email as the biggest source of their daily interruption.
“I like to use the analogy that email is like zombies. They keep coming and you keep killing them and they keep coming,” Mark noted in a presentation to the Information Overload Research Group earlier this year.
Her research shows that without email, people switch between screens less, can focus longer, and are significantly less stressed.
“Email,” she says, “puts people into a bad mood.” When we constantly switch between tasks or screens, it overloads our limited, cognitive resources, creating stress.
A handful of companies have experimented with limiting internal email to foster productivity and workplace sanity.
But email isn’t the only culprit. Mark’s research also indicates that when constant external interruptions abruptly stop, individuals tend to create their own distractions by finding ways to disrupt their own concentration. About 50% of workplace distractions are self-interruptions. So before pointing the finger at your boss or co-workers, perhaps you should consider your own habitual ways of shifting attention.
Andrew Schwarz, an associate professor at LSU’s Department of Information Systems and Decision Sciences, says he used to be the type that answered email instantly.
“If it was a group email, I wanted to be the first to respond,” he says. “[But] I saw as I was getting more and more connected, I was becoming less and less productive.”
Schwarz read about the work habits of successful individuals and began to implement new strategies into the way he works. One approach is to “go dark” twice a week for a set period of time when he is working on his research or writing.
“You have to be very deliberate how you structure your workday and how to handle all that is handed to you,” he says.
Schwarz also makes sure to tell his colleagues and students that he will not be available to answer email and phone calls or conduct meetings during those times. However, he does return messages within 24 hours of receipt.
He advises his MBA students to prioritize their work and not to expect themselves to have read every item in their inbox by the end of the day. He tells them to set realistic goals.
“The millennial generation looks at technology as a tool to improve their lives but also believes that being connected all of the time is not a good thing,” he says. “They crave authenticity.”
One of his students told him that when she goes out to dinner with her friends, they put all of their cell phones at the end of the table. The first person to check her phone pays for dinner.
Schwarz also advises executives to make time for strategic thinking.
“If you don’t take the time for strategic thinking, your company will float through operational drift,” he says. The cost of not keeping up with industry changes and responding accordingly can be detrimental in today’s competitive market.
Knowing when and where you think best is important. Sometimes that may mean not going into the office for a set period of time.
“If you just focus on productivity, you’re going to miss those big changes,” he says. “It’s called Digital Darwinism when companies don’t embrace how technology is changing their industry.”
Bad for your health
Phil Brantley at Pennington Biomedical Research Center has studied the effects of day-to-day stressors such as getting stuck in traffic, having an argument with a co-worker, or not getting a full night’s sleep. His research shows that the accumulation of daily stress can be just as detrimental to your health as experiencing a major emotional catastrophe. Muscular pain, headaches, gastro-intestinal problems, and cardiovascular issues can all be traced back to stress.
The physical ailments from stress only partly explain why Phi Truong left a successful banking career.
“It came from an inner place of discontent, an inner place of knowing [that] how I was living wasn’t the best life I could have,” she says. She remembers feeling stressed about work and home and never feeling like she had enough time for both.
On her journey, she found meditation and founded Agame Yoga and Meditation Center in Baton Rouge, where she helps other local business owners find peace and focus.
“Meditation is simply learning how to manage your mind,” she says. She compares the mind to a machine that we need to learn how to operate in order to maximize efficiency. She leads group and one-on-one meditation sessions for people who want to learn how to quiet the “chatter” in their head and be able to develop greater focus.
“You get to be the maker of the decision, instead of your mind pulling you in all of these directions—Twitter account, texting, checking emails,” she says.
One of her clients, Bridget Suire, was a self-described workaholic who used to believe that completing tasks trumped everything else in her life. Suire remembers constantly thinking about work even at home.
“It was like watching the videotape of what happened. It took a lot of energy,” says Suire, who is the corporate director of implementation at MMO Behavioral Health.
Since then, she has learned how to meditate, a practice in mindfulness that helps her be more present. Whether before work or in the car, she says she can refocus her mind on the here and now with a few deep breaths. The results have been powerful.
“I don’t think it’s made me a less driven employee. It’s made me a more balanced employee,” she says. “When you create an atmosphere where people can do their jobs and it’s balanced, people are happier there. I know I’m happier there.”
FIVE WAYS TO ESCAPE INFORMATION OVERLOAD
1 Sit in the morning in a quiet place for at least five minutes to breathe and clear your mind.
2 Set an alarm clock to ring every 30 to 60 minutes throughout the day as a reminder to make sure you are still on task.
3 Don’t respond to email, social media, and other digital distractions at certain times when you need to maximize your concentration.
4 Read books on cultivating mindfulness. A variety are available.
5 Pick a physical location you pass on your way to and from work. Mentally clock in and clock out as you pass that point on your commute.