Workplace Distractions: The Epidemic of Overwhelm

"There are just never enough hours in a day it seems," says real estate broker-agent Eric Hernandez of the A & E Group in Arlington, Va. His office line rings nonstop, as does his cell phone. His e-mail's inbox overflows with new messages every 30 seconds, and agents pop into his office continually with questions, thanks to his open-door policy. "By lunchtime, I feel like I have already run a marathon," says Hernandez, who manages to stay focused and productive amidst all of these common workplace distractions.

The dangers of workplace distractions

E-mail, Facebook, Twitter and Internet surfing are just some of the many distractions that workers can face on a daily basis. Don't forget about co-workers and bosses who can also be major sources of distraction, as well as personal plans that can creep into employees' workday lives -- planning weddings, say, or looking for a new home or researching vacation spots.

"My company does not have access to the Internet on our computers for this exact reason," says E.S., a CPA based in Southern Florida. "If I wanted to check Facebook or my personal e-mails, I would have to log in on my phone during lunch."

These workers are not alone in feeling the added pressures such distractions can bring. A growing body of scientific research is pointing to an "epidemic of overwhelm" -- a phrase coined by David Rock, author of a book and a Psychology Today blog entitled 'Your Brain at Work.' The post cites a University of London study that found that always being "connected" equates to losing an entire night's sleep or smoking marijuana.

The Results Curve

Pierre Khawand, founder & CEO of People-OnTheGo, has just published 'The Accomplishing More With Less Workbook,' which identifies and outlines "how interruptions are a huge problem in the workplace and the silent killer of productivity."

After 10 years of research, Khawand has created The Results Curve, which lends credence to just how severe of a problem workplace distractions have become in recent years. "Our work environment is one of great onslaught," says the website. "We struggle to get done on Friday what we had hoped to achieve the previous Monday. Why is it so difficult to do the things we really want to do?"

The social media boom

In 2001, when the Internet and information overload were in full swing, Khawand began his research effort by working with employees at technology companies, exploring ways to help knowledge workers develop better practices for managing and organizing email, electronic documents, and paper documents.

By 2003 his first workshop, Total Organization, was such a success that he expanded his offerings to include a workshop that helped people learn to manage their e-mail as a method for maximizing their efficiency.

According to Khawand, the problem of workplace distractions "goes unnoticed because everyone is involved in it, including Human Resource and upper management professionals who need to fix the problem. My mission is to make this problem more visual so that people can talk about it and quantify it with a common language so that they can fix it."

Khawand's work has not only identified the five major workplace distractions that exist today, but he has also developed a plan for combating these workplace time sucks so that you can remain productive and efficient as an employee.

Five biggest workplace distractions
  • E-mail: There are nine reasons why e-mail is the biggest workplace distraction. All of which are identified below in a separate category.

  • Interruptions by people: This can include both legitimate workplace-related things like expense reports, or non-workplace-related things such as a referral for a painter. Our workplace culture today says that it is OK to ask for things and expect an immediate response.

  • Social media: Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin are rampant in the workplace. Some people use these sites for work, but many do not.

  • Our own thoughts: This is the most subtle of distractions; but all of us let our minds wander from time to time. and that affects our workplace performance.

  • Phone and IM: Depending on your role in a company, and your company's culture, this can come into play on various levels. Used incorrectly, these devices can easily be distractions.

Nine reasons why e-mail is the biggest workplace distraction
  1. Curiosity: We always wonder what happened in the world since we last checked e-mail, says Khawand, so we do it religiously and frequently.
  2. Hope for good news: This is what Khawand refers to as, "winning the lottery syndrome." We always think, "it could happen to me."
  3. Feeling accomplished: We reply to e-mail because it makes us feel like we have completed something on our never-ending to-do list.
  4. Fear of being left behind: We are afraid that we may be missing something if we don't jump at a new e-mail as soon as it comes in.
  5. Anxiety about outstanding tasks: We can't resist having to take care of e-mail because we don't want it hanging over our heads.
  6. Avoidance: Instead of focusing on the more difficult tasks on our list, we opt to check e-mail because it is easy.
  7. Lack of direction or need for direction: We look to e-mail for answers.
  8. Handling urgent stuff: We check e-mail because we get urgent requests; but people start to think everything is urgent, so that sense of urgency no longer has any relevance.
  9. Meeting the expectations of others: "People think that their boss expects them to answer an e-mail right away, so they do," says Khawand.

So now that you know where the most common and stressful distractions come from, it's time to learn how to combat them so you can be as productive as possible in the workplace.

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