Fiona Smith Columnist

Fiona writes on workplace issues, including management, psychology, workplace design, human resources and recruitment. She is a former Work Space editor at The Australian Financial Review and has also covered property, technology, architecture and general news.

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Attention constrained defeatists: If you make it to the end of this article, you’re doing well

Published 04 June 2013 08:02, Updated 05 June 2013 07:26

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Attention constrained defeatists: If you make it to the end of this article, you’re doing well

Shutting it out ... four in 10 of your employees could get their job done in less time if they could manage distractions.

It is not really your fault that you are distracted. You’re bombarded with interruptions while struggling with a workload that should really be done by two people ... or more.

But – and stay with me – there are things you can do about it.

It’s not just you, 25 per cent of people are completely unproductive seven or more hours a week. That’s like taking a day every week to sit around and file your nails.

Almost half of us, 47 per cent, are completely unproductive five or more hours a week.

The larger group, called “Constrained Defeatists”, believe they have little or no capacity to self-regulate and think the distractions and overload are caused by the business environment.

Except, we are not using that time on manicures. We are responding to unnecessary emails, being drawn into useless meetings and being tapped on the shoulder by chatty colleagues, according to the authors of a new study on workplace productivity, Distraction is The Nemesis of Productivity: Why Training Will Not Solve The Root Cause .

Behavioural neuroscientist, Dr Lucia Keleher, and performance consultant, Kate Boorer, say that the conventions of work have not adapted to the onslaught of interruption and growing workloads.

Interruptions

Every three minutes, something or someone is going to break your concentration, which means you will be lucky to make it to the end of this article. This is a challenge: prove me wrong.

Once distracted, it can take around 23 minutes to return to the original task.

Keleher and Boorer say that, even with few distractions, people can’t get all their work done in normal business hours.

“The stress and overwhelm that people are reporting is also driven by an inability to fit all that needs to be done into a set time-frame, i.e. the ‘standard business hours’,” they say.

“It is uncomfortable[ and] constraining and causes individuals to become anxious – despite working hard and trying their best.”

Donating our time to the boss

While employees willingly take work home – at the cost of their personal and family lives – Australian organisations need to demonstrate the same sort of flexibility, they say.

Almost three-quarters of the survey’s 435 respondents work more hours per week than they were paid to do; 80 per cent respond to emails at home; and 72 per cent take work home with them, either by choice or because it’s expected.

Almost one-third say core hours are not enough time to complete the work.

“Although it is publicly espoused that we don’t take work home, due to work/ life balance, the fact is, if we don’t take it home, it won’t get done on time for the deadlines,” says one respondent.

The researchers say that how you deal with distraction and overload depends on whether you are one of the lucky minority who has some say about how, where and when you work.

People who are in control

These people – whom they dub “early adapters” – make up only 20 per cent of their survey respondents and were dominated by self-employed professionals, who were quite happy to work more hours, outside of traditional hours.

“I am paid to deliver a role, and I work whatever it takes to do this,” says one of them.

Early Adapters believe they are in control and are:

  • Able to disregard distractions;
  • Productive throughout most of the day;
  • Prepared to take work home and respond to emails;
  • In control of their workload personally; and
  • Work more than the hours they are paid.

Out of control

The larger group, called “Constrained Defeatists”, believe they have little or no capacity to self-regulate and think the distractions and overload are caused by the business environment (outdated processes, existence of a culture that lacks focus, an abundance of senseless meetings, and, ultimately “managers”).

They are resigned to their fate and are:

  • Frequently distracted;
  • Unable to get on with work and disregard distractions;
  • Concerned they do not have enough time to complete their work;
  • Unproductive throughout most of the day; and
  • Take work home and respond to emails at home

Keleher and Boorer applied these findings to calculate the estimated cost of distraction to a 150-person company,with an annual salary bill of $12 million. The result: a $1.3 million cost due to lack of productivity caused by “stress, overwhelm and overload”.

“Four in 10 of your employees could get their job done in less time (10 per cent or more) if they could manage distractions and go home when the work was completed,” they say.

Keleher and Boorer say that employers can make changes to help people become more productive – starting with making reasonable demands and setting realistic deadlines.

They can also acknowledge that work can take place at any time of the day and night and they need to help their employees manage that and to set boundaries to protect their home and family life.

Five good ideas

  • eBay: Has a no-device policy during some team meetings, to make meetings more efficient.
  • Atos: This global IT services company has a “zero email” initiative to remove internal email and get people picking up the phone, after a study found employees spent two hours a day managing their inbox.
  • USAmeriBank: Has a “no email Friday” to encourage staff to pick up the phone and solve issues immediately with clients and colleagues.
  • Google: ”Search Inside Yourself” is a well-known training program for employees that focuses on attention training, creating useful mental habits etc..
  • Intel: Worried that employees weren’t having enough time to think deeply about problems, Intel brought in four weekly hours of “think time” where workers are not expected to respond to emails or attend meetings unless it was urgent.

(During the writing of this article, I was distracted at least 12 times by two phone calls, three professional questions, four “chats”, making two cups of tea, and helping with a crossword. I didn’t look at my email. Reading this article has taken you three minutes – well done – so now it’s time to check Facebook.)

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