Distractions from More Meaningful Work

We live in a world full of distractions. It’s a part of life.  Add in self-imposed distractions such as a smart phone and it’s even worse.  There are consequences to all of these distractions.  The ability to perform more meaningful and thoughtful work is nearly impossible while being distracted all of the time.

Time Is Limited

There are only so many hours available to us where our minds and bodies are functioning at their best ability.  This further limits the window of opportunity for performing tasks that take some deeper level of concentration.  It often seems like an uphill battle to find the right time to get it done.

I performed an experiment at work the other day.  From the beginning of the day to its end I was interrupted 23 times.  That’s nearly every 20 minutes.  Whether it was a coworker who wanted to share some information, ask for information, or talk about something non-work related, it was an interruption to what I was doing.

I also included the phone calls, which was 3 of those 23 times.  Many of these interruptions were completely necessary and resulted in positive outcomes working with my fellow teammates.  But, these interactions were still distractions from the other work I was trying to accomplish that required a higher level of concentration.

I’m No Sheldon Cooper

Now, I’m no rocket scientist or physicist who needs to gaze onto a white-board intensely in order to solve an equation.  I’m assuming that’s what those folks do.  Mainly from watching “The Big Bang Theory.”

On the day of my experiment, I was trying to read and provide comments to a rather long and complex document as well as review a tedious excel spreadsheet with lots of serial numbers on it. Neither of those two tasks could be efficiently done while being interrupted every 20 minutes.

I forgot to mention my own interruptions.  Those definitely play into the equation of trying to get meaningful work accomplished.  As soon as those interruptions are over it takes some time to get back to more concentrated work.

Cycle Of Distractions

One distraction is over and back to work I go, but before I do that:

there is the trip to the bathroom

now I have to fill up my water bottle

wonder how the stock market is doing?

oh, it’s 10am, time for a snack

well ok, time to get back to that document

5 minutes pass

and queue the next interruption.

Ugh, and the cycle repeats.

(I drink a lot of water at work by the way, ha)


I’m A Strong Introvert

Those that know me understand that I could sit quietly in a room by myself speaking to no one all day and be perfectly happy.  As a strong introvert, I don’t really require a lot of social interaction for my energy.  Rather, it kind of saps my strength.

But this interruption cycle isn’t about me trying to avoid talking to people.  Like I said, many of these interruptions are, in fact, required and necessary to perform my job.

What these interruptions do is limit the ability to focus on some of the more thoughtful work, which undoubtedly results in lower quality.  There are deadlines when comments have to be submitted and spreadsheets that have to be updated regardless of interruptions.

So oftentimes, instead of the A+ work, B+ will have to do.

Email Is A Monster

One of the most prevalent distractions at work is email.  That little box pops up and you see someone important just emailed you.  How long can you go before you stop what you are doing to see what the email is about?  For me, it’s about 3 seconds.

And even if you resist checking that email, undoubtedly someone will approach with the, “Hey man, did you see that email?”

“Nope, but I bet you’re going to tell me about it.”

There is a school of thought that says you should only open up your outlook at work during very specific times of the day to download all emails and respond.  Otherwise Outlook is closed as to eliminate the distraction.

Does anyone do this?

I’m almost certain if I did this at work people would think something was wrong with me.  It would certainly confuse the person who jumps right into a conversation with me assuming that I have read the email they sent me – oftentimes only moments beforehand.

It’s almost like a double interruption.  You interrupted me with the email and now you are also interrupting me to discuss the email you just sent me.  Now, I will admit, I have certainly done this.  But I really try to reserve this rather amateur move for only the most important of situations.  Oh, the horror!

What Are The Results?

There are now parts of my day where I plan to pretty much not do a lot of work.  I am just available for people to come by and interrupt me.  Like a college professor with office hours, I just sit there waiting for the traffic to flow my way.   It’s now almost a running joke at work.  When certain teammates come down the hallway, I pretend to hide.

If I have meaningful analytical work to perform, I have to schedule it for a time of day when I know the office will be quiet or certain people are out of the office.  I have even gone so far as to leave my office and hide out at an alternate work location to do quiet work.  What a crazy backwards world “work” can be sometimes.

Extreme Administrative Work

There was a time when I was in the Army that I was the highest ranking officer in charge of over 100 soldiers.  The daily paperwork that required my signature was staggering.  Throughout the day, if I was in the motor pool or in the field away from the office, I would call back to ask, “How’s the inbox?”  Meaning, what is there for me to sign?

Requests for leave, awards, disciplinary action, performance reviews, and training plans, etc. all required my signature.  All of it had to be read and understood thoroughly before signature.  Even with a staff of people helping, it was time consuming.  The best time of day to do this was prior to morning physical training.  So every morning I would arrive to the office at 5:30 am to read and sign paper.  It was the only quiet time of the day to get it done.

What is required to perform more meaningful work?

  1. Time.  It take more than a few minutes to get in the zone.  There is a reason why you can’t just go from having a conversation with someone to diving deep into reading an analytical document or, God forbid, write something of meaning.  Your brain needs time to settle into a train of thought.  This takes uninterrupted time.
  2. Quiet.  Or controlled noise.  For me, I do my best work with some light music with no words playing in the background.  And this never happens at work.  When I’m working at home (writing this blog), I enjoy having music on in the background.  Anything else is a step down in terms of ideal do-work noise.  Compare this to my usual work environment where I can hear many other conversations going on at once, sounds of cell phones beeping, and I’m on an uphill fight to get into the zone.
  3. Preparation.  Being very clear and focused as to what you are trying to achieve is key to diving deep into a specific task.  Doing the prep beforehand will eliminate a lot of the potential distractions.  It will also help you shrink the time needed to get focused.  So if you are going to read something and want it printed out, doing that beforehand really helps.  If on the computer, closing all other applications that aren’t required is a good way to stay focused.

What are you best times of day to get your meaningful work done free from distractions?

Is this just the normal everyday existence of the office or is it just me?

Where do you go to get your best work done?

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

2 thoughts on “Distractions from More Meaningful Work

  1. This definitely hits on something that seems to be common in most modern workplaces. I used to go whole days feeling very productive, but without anything to show for it looking back.

    I come in to the office about two hours earlier than most of my coworkers. This is when I plan for any high-concentration work that needs to be done. Sometimes work will come in in the middle of the day and I will just immediately plug it in for the next morning because I know I won’t be able to work on it efficiently in the afternoon.

    I’m with you on email, though. All of the productivity gurus seem to recommend only checking it a few times a day, but if I did that and missed an urgent email from my boss it would not go over well.

    • thanks Matt. It’s really an uphill battle at this point. Luckily, i just moved to a new building and it seems to be a little quieter at certain points of the day. I’m hoping that translates to getting more work done.

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