According to a study from the University of California, Irvine, the average office worker has focused periods of just eleven minutes in-between a constant barrage of interruptions.
I was shocked when I read that, and didn’t quite believe it. But then I paid attention to how much typing I did in this article before my attention drifted to something else. I wouldn’t be surprised if most of the time I focus for less than eleven minutes before being distracted.
So I need to know as much as anyone how to overcome the temptation of distractions that abound in the modern workplace.
How Distractions Affect Us
The world is not acting in our long-term benefit. Imagine you walk down the street and every store is trying to get your money right now; in your pocket you have a phone and every app wants to control your attention right now. Most of the entities in our lives really want us to make mistakes in their favor. So the world is making things very, very difficult. — Behavioral economist Dan Ariely
If you get distracted as easily as I do, don’t feel alone. It turns out most people get distracted very easily, and very often.
According to David Rock, executive director of the NeuroLeadership Institute and author of Your Brain at Work, one study found office distractions eat up over two hours on average every day.
But being distracted isn’t the worst part. We’re also not too good at getting back to work after being distracted. Rock says after an interruption it takes most of us 25 minutes to get back on track with our work.
…there’s no way not to be distracted by distractions, it’s built into the brain in the way we pay attention to novelty. — David Rock
Another study tested how people reacted to distractions while they completed complicated computer-based tasks. The study tested short (about two seconds long) and long (about four seconds) distractions to test how the different lengths of interruption affected the participants’ focus. It turns out, even very short distractions can affect our focus and performance. The effects were similar across both lengths of distractions, with participants losing their place and making mistakes more often after both short and longer distractions.
Part of the reason we struggle with distractions, according to Alan Hedge, a “workplace design expert” at Cornell University, is that humans are social creatures, which makes us innately curious about other people. As a result, it’s hard for us to tune other people out.
Apart from humans, we’re also terrible at ignoring anything that’s unpredictable. When you combine these two weaknesses, you can see why research has shown that overhearing just one side of a conversation is one of the worst distractions we humans can face. Because we struggle to predict the flow of a conversation when we can only hear one side of it, hearing a colleague on the phone, for instance, is particularly hard to tune out from.
And, surprisingly, putting up temporary walls between cubicles to separate co-workers in open office spaces can make this problem worse. The problem is that having visible walls can make us talk louder than we otherwise would, because we feel more protected from others in the room, but we actually end up distracting our colleagues even more.
So we know that we all get distracted—a lot. And we know that the worst distractions are those created by other people, and anything that’s unpredictable.
But what can we do to keep our focus when distractions abound and we have work to do?
1. Change your context
Brian Wansink is a professor at Cornell who studies eating behavior. Now, this may sound unrelated, but Wansink’s work has shown something that proves relevant in terms of distractions, as well.
According to Wansink, context makes a bigger difference to our eating habits than anything else:
Everyone—every single one of us—eats how much we eat largely because of what’s around us.
When food is closer, says Wansink, we eat more. And when food is further away, we eat less:
People ate half as much if we simply moved the candy dish off their desk and placed it six feet away.
So how is this relevant to fighting distraction? The key is that context affects us in a big way. When something is in reach and easy to get to, we’ll grab it, eat it, or pay attention to it.
But making candy that little bit more effort to eat makes us less likely to do so. Now, not all of us want to eat less candy, but the same strategy can prove effective in other areas. For instance, if you’re trying to smoke less or drink less coffee it would make sense to keep those vices away from you—and perhaps bring the candy dish a little closer.
We can use this same theory for distractions. Changing the context around you can increase your focus, simply by making focusing easier.
- Use an app like SelfControl or a browser extension like StayFocused to make it harder to visit distracting websites like Facebook or YouTube
- Move your desk or spend time in a spare meeting room to avoid working near co-workers you enjoy chatting with (or those who have loud phone calls at their desks)
- Keep your phone far away during focused work periods, so it takes more time and effort to check it
The key is to set up your environment to encourage focus and make getting distracted harder and less likely.
2. Wean yourself off digital distractions
If digital distractions are your downfall, psychology professor Larry Rosen suggests slowly weaning yourself off your digital vices. Rosen says it’s not uncommon to feel anxious when we can’t check our phones, and to rely on them for regular bouts of distraction from work we don’t want to do.
Many people, regardless of age, check their smartphones every 15 minutes or less and become anxious if they aren’t allowed to do so.
Here’s Rosen’s suggested process for weaning yourself off the habit of constantly checking various devices:
- Check every device and digital distraction you want to: email, Facebook, Instagram, everything.
- Turn off all digital distractions. Use an app or extension like I mentioned above to block websites if necessary, turn off your phone or tablet, or silence them and put them far away from you.
- Set a timer for 15 minutes and spend that time focusing on your work.
- When the 15 minutes is up, give yourself one minute to check your devices and websites as much as you want. But only one minute.
- Repeat this process until you don’t struggle to focus for the entire 15-minute period.
Once 15 minutes is easy for you, increase the length of your timer. Keep increasing it, so it’s always a little stretch, until you can easily ignore digital distractions for an hour or more.
3. Don’t take the first step
For David Rock, one of the most important ways to overcome our tendency to get distracted is to stop taking those first steps. When a distraction tries to grab your attention, Rock suggests staying calm, taking a breath, and purposely choosing to not react to it.
Once you take the first step—for instance, opening your inbox—it’s a lot harder to stop yourself continuing with the distraction—in this case, reading your emails. Rock says stopping ourselves from those initial actions can help us to avoid the time-wasting actions they lead to.
It also helps us feel more in-control, says Alex Korb, a neuroscientist at UCLA, because we’re consciously choosing to not give in to the distraction. Reminding ourselves of our goals and why we want to stay focused, can release a hit of dopamine to make us feel good about choosing to stay focused.
Researching how to overcome distractions didn’t make me a master of it immediately, but I do feel more confident now that I have these different strategies to use.
And if nothing else, I definitely learned that I’m not alone—getting distracted is a concern for everyone in the modern workplace. But with these strategies to try, I’m sure we can all get back that elusive state of focus we’ve been missing.