Distractions are a huge part of the modern workplace. Whether it’s texts, calls, emails, instant messages, social media notifications, office walk-ins, or just disruptive chatter, there’s no shortage of things to pull you away from your work. In fact, some academic studies estimate the average office worker is interrupted – or self-interrupts – once every three minutes.
In a communication-focused profession like marketing, distractions can be even more common than those of a typical office worker. As marketers, we’re expected to be connected and available. We often have a hand in a wide variety of activities, many of which are running concurrently. We also have to manage a mix internal and external stakeholders.
All in all, these factors create an environment where we need to work on multiple things at once, shift gears frequently, and quickly pick up where we left off. While some people would praise this type of work as time-efficient “multitasking”, let’s be honest, it’s working while distracted – and it’s beneficial to neither the timeliness nor quality of your work.
At this point, you might be thinking, “Alright, distractions are annoying, I get it. But it’s not like I can eliminate distractions, so what’s the big deal?”
While it’s true that distractions can be annoying (and maybe even a morale issue if prevalent enough), annoyance is really a small part of what makes distractions such a problem – and there’s a pretty significant amount of science backs me up on this one.
As you’ll see in the following list, distractions have a much bigger impact on productivity than most people would ever think. We’ll take a look at six reasons distractions are destroying your marketing productivity.
1. Distractions Are Making You Literally Sick and Tired
We’ve all probably felt sick and tired of workplace distractions at some point. As it turns out, there might be more to this than you thought. Research has actually linked frequent interruptions to increased stress, exhaustion, and stress-induced ailments.
In addition to interfering with the work itself, distractions contribute to the feeling of being overwhelmed, which creates stress. Frequent distractions create a great deal of stress, which can then translate into fatigue and other issues.
The International Journal of Stress Management recently conducted a study of 252 working adults, in which they found employees who experienced frequent interruptions reported 9% higher rates of exhaustion (nearly as much as the 12% increase related to oversized workloads). The same study found that such workers were also 4% more prone to physical ailments, such as migraines and backaches.
Stress-induced problems can lead to lowered productivity or missed time at work, which can in turn lead to a buildup of work and more stress. It’s a difficult cycle to break.
2. Distractions Create Errors
If you’ve ever done something without giving it your full attention, you know the kind of strange slip-ups that come with doing things on autopilot. It might be misspellings, misplaced words, transposed digits, mixed-up names, or any other sort of silly mistake. While these type o errors probably aren’t an issue in an email to your coworkers, they could be a major problem if you’re reporting important metrics or referencing a client’s ID number.
Just how much of a difference does it make to give something your full attention? A recent study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General attempts to answer exactly this. The 300-person study asks participants to perform a series of basic computer task both with and without disruptions. The study found that even a short disruption (about 2.8 seconds) caused participants to commit twice as many errors while completing the given task.
Whether the errors caused by distractions end up being impactful or not, they create more work in double-checking, editing, and quality assurance. Even with a rigorous system of checks, each mistake increases the potential for crucial errors down the line.
3. Distractions are Self-Perpetuating
The thing that make distractions really tough is the fact that they tend to snowball. A small distraction, like an email or a phone call, might take only a minute or two to address, but in reality, it takes far longer to actually return to work. Depending on the source, research suggests it takes an average of between 23 and 25 minutes to return to a given task once interrupted.
And it’s not that were incapable of returning any quicker. Laboratory tests have found that human are capable of resuming even complex tasks after around 15 seconds.
Distractions become half-hour deviations because we tend to use them as an opportunity for more distraction. When we’ve already stopped what we’re doing for one distraction, we check our email, read a blog post, send an instant message, review some creative, or otherwise take care of something we previously put off.
Moreover, there comes a point when we create additional distractions, even if we have nothing to do. As Gloria Mark, an informatics professor at UC Irvine puts it in an interview with NPR, “People get into a habit — or they’re even conditioned, if you will — to be interrupted so that their attention can’t last for any particular length of time. If they’re not interrupted by an external source, then they self-interrupt.”
This is probably something we’ve all experienced: You send an email and you’re expecting a quick reply, so you browse the Internet for a few minutes while you wait for it to come in. You might have the urge to check your inbox or instant messaging system even though you haven’t received a notification. Alternatively, you might reach a “stopping point” before a meeting or the end of the day, then, rather than getting involved in another project, simply keep yourself busy for the remaining time.
Though none of these choices are necessarily illogical, they do represent lost time throughout the day and they make it that much harder to resume working productively on major projects.
4. The Productivity “Groove” is a Real Thing (and Distractions Ruin It)
When you sit down and work on a complicated task – be it writing, coding, or design – there comes a point where you settle in and start to really get things done. Typically, it takes some time to feel this focused and productive. A lot of people describe this as a “groove” or “flow” or being “in the zone”. Basically, it’s a result of you pointing your attention and cognitive resources at the task at hand. As you probably know, it’s also where most of the work gets done.
Unfortunately, it’s much easier to be jarred out of one of these productivity grooves than it is to fall into one. According to Erik Altmann, a psychology professor at Michigan State University and prominent author on the subject, a couple of seconds of distraction is long enough to break such a groove.
Even after resuming the given activity, getting back into rhythm isn’t immediate. It takes an additional 15 minutes to return to pre-interruption levels of focus, according to an 800-person study by Peopleware co-author, Tom DeMarco.
Between the time it takes to return to work and the time it takes to regain focus, that “important” email could end up costing you 40 minutes or more of productive time. It doesn’t take many of these lengthy stoppages to add days, if not weeks, to projects.
5. We Encourage Distractions
Collaborative open workspaces are trendy. They’re hugely popular with companies ranging from startups to tech giants. While these spaces are touted for encouraging creativity and teamwork, they’re also conducive to distractions. Large, open workspaces can result in 29% more distractions than private offices. In addition, because such spaces encourage face-to-face interaction, these distractions can be harder to ignore.
The organizational support for distractions doesn’t end with the floorplan. If you’ve spent any length of time in an office setting, you’ve probably heard a manager praising multitasking. We tend to think of multitasking as a sign of diligence and efficiency. As it turns out, narrowing your focus to just a few things can lead to more efficient work and better problem solving. In other words, things tend to get done when you can’t just switch tasks when you get stuck.
It’s not just management that’s guilty encouraging distractions. In some cases, we’re doing it to ourselves. It’s something I like to call the “everything is urgent” conundrum. It occurs when you have a mix of urgent and non-urgent communications through a single channel.
Take email for example. Most people get a mix of important and unimportant emails. The problem is, when we hear that inbox notification, we don’t know which it is, so we have to treat everything as if it was urgent – at least initially. In this case, that means stopping what you’re doing, going over to your email client, checking the sender/subject line, and maybe glancing through the message. If we made an effort to split urgent from non-urgent – whether it’s a separate notification or a separate channel altogether – we could save ourselves from interruptions for things that can wait.
Wrapping It Up
Distractions are quite a bit more than just an annoyance. Even those quick, everyday interruptions can become costly if prevalent enough.
If you’re interested in what you can do to minimize such distractions, stay tuned for next week when we take a look at strategies to combat costly distractions at work.
Let us know what you think:
- How big of a problem are distractions for you?
- What (or who) is your biggest source of distractions?
- What do you do to minimize distractions?
A natural follow-up to this post, Matt, would be 5 ways to maximize productivity while pragmatically minimizing distractions.