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Avoiding Distractions in the Workplace

Woman looking at mobile phone whilst also working on a laptop

Before technology, humans were untethered; free to wander the world and explore as they wished. The advent of telecommunications changed all that. Telephones, computers and the internet transformed the ways we could communicate across great distances. But such innovations also tethered people to specific geographical locations, usually their office desktops.

The invention of the mobile phone liberated us again but, in doing so, we became tethered in a different way. Now, wherever we gaze in today's industrialised society, we see people engrossed in their devices. Seemingly oblivious to the world around them, many people commute to work each day wearing earbuds and headphones to block out their surroundings, their visual attention instead consumed by the small screen in their hands. Communication technology has many benefits, but we did not anticipate is its strong propensity to also distract and absorb our attention.

But personal and mobile technologies come with a social cost. Interpersonal communication may be diverted and relationships compromised as a result of smartphone overuse. Productivity can be lost in the workplace, as the multi-functional nature of the smartphone gives it the capacity to capture our attention through a growing spectrum of attractions, from music and digital media, games, social media, dating sites, videos and live news streams.

In 2004, as mobile phones were beginning to proliferate, author Mark Curtis wrote a book titled Distraction: Being Human in the Digital Age. Curtis explored the challenges, risks, threats and barriers to good communication due to the propensity of smartphones to transfer our attention from the real world to the virtual world. Such deviations can limit our interaction with others, and can also inhibit our engagement with our immediate environment. What are the implications of such mass distraction for the workplace, for home life, and indeed, for any social interactions?

Workplace distractions: is technology to blame?

Distractions in the workplace are common. They interrupt the flow of work; an email pops up on your desktop screen asking for your 'urgent' attention, Facebook messenger pings on your smartphone telling you someone has responded to your earlier status update, then a colleague phones you to invite you out to lunch...

Distractions such as these have become commonplace, but they can have serious consequences. The proliferation of smartphones, social media and email leave employees at risk of unrelenting task interruption. Most would agree that technology in the workplace can be indispensable, providing important support and offering numerous benefits to help us work better and smarter. However, technology can easily remove us from the task at hand and cause us to deviate from our focus.

Curtis suggests that the digital age has introduced a spatial shift where we are explicitly and implicitly connected to each other as never before. Ostensibly, this is very useful for communication at all levels, but ubiquitous, continuous connectivity also brings some challenges.

First, there is a social impact: communication technology may create a psychological distance between people; it can have detrimental effects on our concentration. Studies have shown that greater dialogue can lessen the psychological distance between people, but psychological distance may increase with co-located colleagues and friends when devices distract us. For example, if two friends are in conversation, and one is interrupted by a notification on their smartphone, less attention is now being paid to the other person than is socially expected. A deviation occurs - an interruption of the normal and acceptable social conventions of conversation and interaction.

Secondly, research has shown that when we become distracted, we are often more error-prone and that once interrupted, it is more difficult to resume (or even remember) the original task. Such deviation from tasks can seriously affect productivity and may compromise the health and safety of self and others. What's more, interruptions to a task can lead to feelings of increased stress, anxiety and frustration. Distractions can also lead to poor decision making and inevitably increase task completion time (Lee and Duffy, 2015). In short, productivity can be adversely affected.

Overcoming distractions at work

How can organizations address these issues and problems?

Although the use of smartphones and other personal devices in the workplace can have negative effects on concentration, memory, task completion and social interaction, it's not all bad news. There are many advantages to bringing personal devices into the workplace, especially around new learning opportunities. Yet, the use of personal devices needs to be tempered against how they can improve our performance, without becoming distractions and introducing new problems into our lives. Also, we should not forget that other technologies such as desk phones, email and social media can distract us just as easily as receiving notifications or texts on our smartphones.

Here are just a few ways you can minimise distractions while you are in the workplace:

  • Create set times when you consult your smartphone. Try to stick to those times and avoid access to your smartphone at other times. You may even consider switching your phone off during particularly mission-critical times of the day. 

  • Set similar times during the day when you read and respond to emails and other messages from colleagues, friends and even clients. Training your mind to focus on specific tasks while ignoring stimuli such as email is more successful if you turn off audio so that notifications cannot be heard.

  • If you work from home, create a specific space in which you can focus on your work. Remove any clutter, and as many distractions as possible from this space. It is your work space. A television that is 'on in the background' can become a major distraction if it is within your hearing/vision range. 

  • Set yourself specific goals to achieve, and time limits within which to achieve them. Give yourself a small reward when you meet those goals, especially if you have been able to avoid distractions to accomplish them. 

  • Avoid consulting email and other work related technologies when you are 'out of the office' and in your own personal time. Don't take your smartphone to bed with you unless you really need to do so. You will gain more downtime to recharge your energy, and you will probably sleep better too. Going to work alert and refreshed enables most people to focus more keenly on their work and usually improves performance. 

  • Work to your own tempo whenever you can. Avoid having your day dictated by others if at all possible. Complete older projects fully before you start new ones. If you can establish your own work rhythm, it will pay off in the long term.