Reducing distractions at work to improve productivity 

How often are you distracted at work? Is it difficult to complete key tasks and projects in a timely manner because you are interrupted too often?

A recent Australian study of 435 employees from a variety of career levels found that distraction in their workplaces was a significant problem, and was leading to large chunks of unproductive time. In the study, about half of the people surveyed reported that they were completely unproductive for five or more hours per week. Even worse, about 25 percent of the sample described being completely unproductive for around 7 or more hours a week. Almost a whole day!

The survey responders described the most common distractions as unnecessary emails, meetings and general distractions from working in open plan offices.

The study authors also reported other research, which has found that, on average, people in offices were interrupted (or interrupt themselves) about every three minutes. That is a significant number of distractions every hour.

The researchers concluded that: “Distraction is the nemesis of productivity”.

These findings fit with what we hear from participants in our training workshops. Across organisations and career levels, people tell us that unnecessary interruptions and distractions contribute to poor productivity and to feeling overwhelmed by volumes of work.

Ways to reduce distraction

Given distraction is so widespread, what are some solutions? In the Australian study, the authors asked their responders to name “one thing that could help you become more productive in the workplace on a daily basis”.

These were some of the suggestions for individuals:

  1. Turn off email/limit access to email, e.g. check only at specific points in the day.
  2. Manage work environment to control distractions related to open plan working, e.g. go to a quiet room regularly.
  3. Focus – develop better concentration skills and minimise multi-tasking.

We would add mindfulness practice as an effective strategy for individuals to improve focus and concentration.

For organisational initiatives to improve productivity, these were some of the ideas:

  1. Decrease emails, e.g. email-free afternoons.
  2. Ensure fewer meetings, especially unproductive ones – try “meeting-free” days or hours.
  3. Have leadership support to be clear on priorities and encourage focused attention.
  4. Leaders need to model behaviours that drive enhanced productivity.

The authors suggest that successful organisations are asking a new type of question: “How can I help you (my employees) be successful at work and in life in a way that works for you professional and personally?”

Organisations can reduce distractions

From our experience, we would support organisational initiatives to reduce distractions and improve productivity. From a systems perspective, we know that is difficult for individuals to sustain change if those around them are not actively supporting the new behaviours.

At present, we are enjoying working with a number of organisations that are actively working towards creating a culture shift towards productivity. Some of the initiatives that have been particularly successful have included agreed “no meeting” times each day or week, shared recovery times where meetings are also not booked (e.g. at lunch time), and agreed no-email times, including agreements around out-of-hours responding (e.g. no emails before 6am or after 6pm).

Where organisation-wide initiatives are difficult, for whatever reason, specific teams can initiate changes, and supported by senior leaders, these teams can then provide a different way of working for other teams in the organisation.

What successes have you had with reducing distractions?

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