I was amused by this Wall Street Journal article, which begins “In the few minutes it takes to read this article, chances are you'll pause to check your phone, answer a text, switch to your desktop to read an email from the boss's assistant, or glance at the Facebook or Twitter messages popping up in the corner of your screen.”
How true. As the article points out, studies have found that office workers are interrupted—or interrupt themselves—roughly every three minutes, with distractions taking both digital and human forms. Not that distractions are anything new. Back in the 1300s, the Italian scholar and poet Petrarch advised scholars to close the door on their senses in order to achieve solitude in the presence of other people.
If social media are the source of your interruptions, your best bet may be to disconnect from the Internet. If you do it before you start writing, coding, or doing other concentration-requiring tasks, it’s easier to avoid the temptation to check for updates.
If your work requires access to the Internet, perhaps you can turn off just the temptations that distract you. I need to access the web constantly in writing these articles, but if I want to be productive, I have to close out Twitter.
You can help yourself by turning off email and text message alerts, setting up email filters to highlight high priority messages, and allocating time slots when colleagues can interrupt you—or conversely, time slots when you want to be interruption-free.
By the way, research has found that taking a break from work email can significantly decrease stress and improve focus. In the study, employees who stopped doing work email for five days (five days!) felt better able to stay on task. Interestingly, these employees changed computer screens about eighteen times per hour, whereas email users switched screens thirty-seven times per hour.
Furthermore, those who did without email had heart rates indicating a more relaxed state, while their email-checking counterparts had heart rates that were in a “high alert” state.
Since you’re unlikely to be able to avoid checking email for five days, you might try an occasional technology-free getaway for a breath of fresh, distraction-free air.
Of course, distractions created by others may be outside your control. Still, sometimes you can approach the source of the distraction, such as noisy members of another team, and ask if they’d be willing to turn it down a bit. The miracle is that we accomplish as much as we do, given all the distractions.
So, how many times, while reading this article, did you pause “to check your phone, answer a text, switch to your desktop to read an email from the boss's assistant, or glance at the Facebook or Twitter messages popping up in the corner of your screen?”
Naomi Karten is a writer and speaker who draws from her background in both psychology and IT. Naomi's recent books are Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals and Changing How You Manage and Communicate Change. Readers have described her newsletter, Perceptions and Realities, as lively, informative, and a breath of fresh air. Naomi is a regular columnist for StickyMinds.com.