How To Overcome Workplace Distraction



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Everyone knows how distracting life at the office has become. Midday yesterday I slacked off on my email and I now have 102 unread messages. The red light on my desktop phone is blazing, telling me I have voicemail waiting. There are two projects I should be doing, including one that involves compiling many disparate pieces of information and interviewing several business school professors. Then there are the personal tasks that compete for my attention, including a stack of health insurance papers I should file. And I don’t even sit in an open-plan office, as most workers do these days. I can shut my door.

Meantime, it’s my job to try to write stories that people will read from start to finish. How can I do that at a time when there are so many things competing for my audience’s attention? A piece today in The Wall Street Journal on workplace distraction cites academic studies showing that office workers get interrupted, or interrupt themselves, every three minutes. The Journal talked to Gloria Mark, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, who says it can take 23 minutes for a worker to get back to the task at hand after a distraction.

The Journal also discusses ways that companies are trying to help workers stay focused. One has reduced the number of projects employees take on at one time. Another has banned internal emails. Yet another tells its workers that they should use phone calls and in-person talks for urgent and complicated tasks and only use emails for matters that can wait. At eBay, Lacy Roberson, director of learning and organizational development, has made a rule that people can’t use devices during meetings. At a division of Intel, employees are trying a pilot program where they block out several hours a week for concentrated work, not responding to emails or going to meetings. The program has already produced a patent application.

The distraction epidemic has become rampant outside the workplace as well. My teenage son has been staying up until one and two in the morning to finish his homework , and then falling asleep in class the next day.. Thank goodness he recently came up with a possible fix: SelfControl, a free app he has installed on his computer. It shuts down his access to websites like Facebook and YouTube for a designated period. So far it’s working.

But maybe there’s a more organic way for us all to keep ourselves on task. Today’s New York Times has a compelling piece by novelist Lee Child, where he describes a simple but effective storytelling technique: Ask a question and then take some time before you get to the answer. In the prose context, this means starting an article or a book with a question and then waiting to answer it until the end. The curious reader will keep going until she finds out what the author was waiting to reveal. That’s Child’s key to being a master writer of suspense novels.

How does this apply at the office? There are two ways you can use Child’s tactic. If you’re the one who has to get other people’s attention, you can break through their distraction by whetting their appetites with a bit of information and then waiting to reveal everything you intend to impart until the end of the conversation or meeting. You can also structure a meeting like a mystery that needs to be solved. Ask a compelling question at the outset and tell the participants they need to come up with an answer by the end. The second way is to think of your own work in the way Child suggests. If you’re structuring a focus group recruiting project and you have goals to meet, think of those goals as a mystery that you will crack over the coming days or weeks. If you are a lawyer or financial planner, conceive of each project as a challenge and yourself as a detective searching for an answer. Your email, phone and colleagues will try to pull your attention away, but you may become so engrossed in solving your puzzle that you can concentrate until you find the answers. And maybe you can engross your colleagues in it too.

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Babatunde Akinsola
Babatunde Akinsola
Babatunde Akinsola is aNaija247news' Southwest editor. He's based in Lagos and writes on the Yoruba Nation political issues, news and investigative reports

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