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Donkin on Work - Productivity

January 2006 – Distractions at work

Working at my desk last week I was interrupted by a telephone call. It was a researcher for BBC Radio Wales who wanted me to talk on her morning show. “What’s the subject?” I asked. “Distractions at work,” she said.

That’s the thing about distractions. We all love to hate them but rarely do we like to acknowledge that our own work behaviours are part of the problem. The programme was quoting a research paper by Gloria Mark, an associate professor at the school of information and computer sciences, University of California, and research student Victor Gonzalez, that studied the work patterns of 36 information technology workers, timing their activities to the second over three days.

On average people were spending about three minutes on a particular task before they were either broken off or they interrupted their own work to do something else. Work on specific projects lasted a little longer, just over 10 minutes before people dropped what they were doing and switched projects or took time for a break. One employee complained of “constant, multi-tasking craziness.”

Most of us must be familiar with what seem to be increasing sources of work disruption. Emails, telephone calls and text messages compete for our attention with colleagues, managers, customers and suppliers. A computer screen may be displaying instant messaging, news feeds, share quotations and various other attention grabbers. What once could be viewed as distracting must now be viewed as part of the job because so many jobs, by their very nature, do not allow long periods of concentration.

An underlying concern, nevertheless, must be that multiple distractions are becoming so disrupting that they are delaying the completion of important work, allowing trivial issues to divert attention from the things that need to get done.

Another recent report, The Cost of Not Paying Attention, How Interruptions Impact Knowledge Workers, by Jonathan Spira and Joshua Feintuch, analysts at Basex, a business research company, claimed that unnecessary interruptions in the workplace were costing US businesses some $588 bn a year.**

This somewhat staggering figure is based on information workers earning on average about $21 an hour. Observations undertaken by Basex found that people who were doing most of their work sitting at terminals, reading documents and handling large amounts of information, were wasting just over two hours a day attending to disruptions that were not relevant to their work.

In my case that is probably an underestimate. I prefer to work away from the distractions of the office. Instead I have the distractions of the home - the dog barking at delivery vans, noisy children during school breaks, and the heron that likes to raid my pond. In contrast with the office these are quite pleasant distractions, even the heron that does its best to avoid distracting anyone.

Sitting at a terminal eight hours a day, answering every phone call, reading every email would drive me to distraction. Maybe that is the real problem. As the Californian study noted, some interruptions we impose on ourselves, possibly as a way of coping with competing information streams that would otherwise overload our brains. Just as a computer slows down when several pieces of software are open at once, our brains are surely doing the same.

So how should employees deal with distractions? One way is to develop routines and patterns. One of my former colleagues would stand up and walk around the office, thinking things through, in preparation for a feature that would be done in short order, once he returned to the desk. Another colleague would get her gossiping out of the way in concentrated intervals before carving out a period of the day in which she steadfastly ignored most distractions. A deadline is always helpful.

When, in those rare sessions, there is the opportunity to immerse yourself in a concentrated piece of work, it is surprising and satisfying just how much work can be achieved.

The changing nature of information technology, often creating demands for working on many separate projects, raises the question of whether full-time working is a good idea when contract work is so suited to uneven work-flows.

A new study has found that temporary workers tend to feel happier with their work than their permanent counterparts. The study by David Guest and Michael Clinton at the Department of Management, Kings College, London, surveyed attitudes to work among 642 UK workers among 19 employers.*** A quarter of the employees had temporary contracts.

The researchers found that, contrary to expectations, workers on temporary contracts reported better health, a stronger sense of well being, more positive attitudes to work and better work behaviour than their full-time colleagues. While temporary workers displayed a higher level of job insecurity it did not effect their attitudes to work. Overall temporary workers were clearer about their job roles and suffered less from work overload. They had a much stronger perception of the obligations implied in their contract and reported fairer treatment by their employers.

The research speculates that the root cause of these differences may lie in the deterioration of permanent jobs. “Many permanent workers report high levels of work overload, relatively high levels of irritation, anxiety and depression and a strong interference of work with life at home. Temporary work may have drawbacks; but for many people in permanent contracts, the experience of work is markedly more negative.”

One reason for these differences, I believe, is the increasing difficulty experienced by many people dealing with various distractions, company bureaucracy and increasing management demands. The Basex report highlights a need for what it calls “attention management” suggesting that people could improve the way they handle interruptions.

In the same way those who cause the distractions might think a little bit about how they approach their work. While a lot of interruptions today are thoughtless, some are calculated to catch people at quiet times. Headhunters will often ring executives early before most company meetings get underway.

In some cases, I suspect, distractions are viewed as a temporary refuge from an unpleasant task. The proliferation of the internet relies on people’s willingness to wander on the web. One business’s productivity loss from a web-distracted worker, therefore, may be another’s gain in marketing exposure or even a direct sale. For all the apparent “losses” caused by distraction, I wonder how many gains are created in new opportunities?

Indeed had it not been for that Radio Wales phone call, I might have never come across these various studies. Not all distractions are a waste of time and, like advertising, it is difficult to filter out that which is wasted. But the question of whether employers should be laying out more than a quarter of full time salaries in accommodating ever increasing levels of distraction might be worth some thought.

*Details of the research can be obtained from Prof Mark, [email protected]


*** Temporary Employment Contracts, Workers’ Wellbeing and Behaviour: Evidence from the UK, by David Guest and Michael Clinton,

©2006 Richard Donkin - all rights reserved