Being distracted at work is a bigger problem than you think

I recently read an excellent online article in WSJ by Rachel Emma Silverman about distractions at work (link), things like email, YouTube, and instant messaging. Ms. Silverman does a really good job of outlining the problem and several studies on the subject. This got me thinking about what being distracted really means because it is not just the distraction that is the problem but everything that goes with being distracted, such as bad habits, focus, discipline, and leadership. If we can address distractions, we will shine some light on other workplace problems as well. Here are 6 problems, their significance, and some approaches to help you deal with being distracted.


1. Being distracted. Distracted is a state of 'being', which means you have a choice in the matter. You can't 'be' in a mental state without chosing 'to be'. This may disturb some of you but the amount you disagree is directly proportional to how easily you are distracted.

Your first step in addressing distractions is to be CLEARLY AWARE that you are choosing to be distracted (rather than being a victim of distraction). This removes you as the victim and puts you in a position of responsibility. Listening to someone gossip for 30 minutes does not make you a polite person. We are responsible for staying on task. You won't solve this problem the first time it happens, be patient, it takes practise. It will get easier to find ways to tell people you need to get back to work the more you do it.

2. What is distraction? I assume we have to be doing something in order to be distracted from it and I assume this would be considered 'work' that we are distracted from. I don't consider being distracted from idle chatter a distraction. Your work can be distracted by more work-issues or by time-wasters, items that are not related to accomplishing work.

The second step is easy, understand WHAT is distracting you. Is it more work or a time waster. If it's work, prioritize, or just forget about it (see #4). If it's a time-watser....well you figure it out. Sometimes a co-worker really needs to talk to you. It's ok to stop what you are doing and talk. Practice prioritizing. There is no magic secret to prioritizing. You just need to keep doing it.

3. Self-importance. If you think everyone needs to know what you are doing or you need to know what everyone is doing, you have a problem. This shows itself often as the need to be right. If you spend your time asserting yourself in everything that is going on, you aren't accomplishing anything. We work to provide a service and value, not self-affirmation (although healthy feelings of accomplishment do come from a job well done and happy customers).

The third step is a strong does of humility. Even if you are right, give the issue some space. The best solution always becomes self-evident if it is not crammed down peoples throats. And mind your business. Although we are functioning in more collaborative environments, before you storm into a conversation ask yourself why are you choosing to participate. Is it for your-self, or to move a problem forward. Sometimes being quiet moves a problem forward the quickest.

If it's not you with the ego problem, but a colleague, then provide encouragement and positive feedback periodically as well as clear boundaries. That is what narcissists need, a combination of encouragement and boundaries.

4. Everything is important. This is a big one. If every email, conversation, meeting agenda, or phone call that comes up distracts you, you likely don't know what is important. This is a leadership failure to explicitly show what is important. Nonetheless, don't blame leadership.

Your fourth solution is to take it upon yourself to constantly engage your colleagues (this includes leadership) in determining what is important. This will not only help yourself, but your team as well.

5. Habitual distraction. This is a sometimes a subconscious habitual response to checking email or some other form of message when you hear the 'ding'. This is a habit similar to smoking or pulling the lever on the slots. You have a cue (the ding of you inbox) and you compulsively stop everything to check the message in anticipation that it will provide relief from what you are doing. It rarely does. Be conscious of why you are reacting to a message.

Break this habit by turning off your email alert. You need to take ownership of your actions and reactions. I don't think I have met anyone other than a surgeon whose position requires immediate response to a message.

6. Fear. Your afraid you will miss something important and in doing so there will be some negative consequence. This is essentially related to #4. If you are already focused and working on what is important, you won't miss something important.

Fear can also show itself as a fear of offending someone who is distracting you. The best way to deal with this is to deal with it. Perhaps you need some coaching, perhaps you can do it on your own, but you need to be able to set boundaries in the workplace, otherwise there is just disfunction.

In the end, freeing yourself from distractions is a personal responsibility. Yes, the number and variety of distractions is large and growing, but that's no excuse. In order to function effectively, some focus and awareness are needed.


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