For individual employees, the effort to separate signal from noise—to eliminate distraction and focus on what matters—may feel like little more than a daily annoyance. But for businesses, distraction at scale become a bottom-line problem.
Work takes longer. Creativity suffers. As employees and teams struggle to find their focus—and struggle even more to maintain it—organizations fail to reach their real potential. And in an age of rapid digital transformation, that failure can sometimes be fatal.
The data on distraction tells the story. A study by Microsoft Research found that interruptions bombard the average office employee at a rate of every 40 seconds. And it takes an average of 23 minutes for someone to regain focus following a diversion, according to Gloria Mark, a professor of informatics at the University of California, Irvine.
The internet abounds with advice for individuals on finding a quiet space of the mind. Yes, it helps to shut off phone notifications and don noise-canceling headphones. But these are reactive measures.
Organizations need to take an active stand against distraction. Amid all the noise, finding focus becomes not just a way of helping employees get one more task done. Businesses that cultivate a culture of focus will gain a competitive advantage over those that fail to stave off an environment where distraction is the status quo.
The Art (and Science) of Consolidation
To help teams and individuals find their focus, organizations need to examine the larger processes in play.
It’s helpful to get past the idea of “time management” to zero in on simplifying workflows. Shutting off notifications and other electronic stimuli can help, but it can be more effective to streamline sources of information. Everything teams need to do their jobs should be effectively in the same place.
Employees deplete their hard-earned attention spans when they’re forced to hopscotch across channels, from Post-It notes to emails to task managers. Keeping track of the sheer number of places teams list their priorities becomes an exhausting, and often overwhelming, chore.
Information overload, in turn, can lead to defaulting to email whack-a-mole instead of deciding what really requires attention. “Reacting is much faster and easier than trying to figure out what you’re actually supposed to do,” Maura Thomas, a productivity expert, told Fast Company. “When you’ve got six places to check, people say, ‘I’m just going to check my email because it’s right there.’”
Narrowing the feed of relevant work information to a single distilled source will curb the chatter that distracts from the key action at hand and obscures the real work that needs to be done. Teams need visibility. They need transparency. They need a single source of ground truth.
Bosses and colleagues can hold individual employees accountable. But an organization that prizes focus can also teach employees to hold themselves accountable. Time-tracking can be a wonder for anyone who has never truly monitored how they spend their days. Much like using a calorie counter to track everything you eat or writing down every penny you spend, honest time tracking can expose the fictions we all create for ourselves about how we’re really allocating our most valuable asset.
Charting the day can also be helpful for tracking energy levels. Over time, encourage individuals to note regular periods of high alertness to determine when to devote themselves to the most arduous work. By recognizing that different individuals operate on different rhythms—and encouraging them to identify their own patterns of productivity—organizations can help scale focus. Different individuals will get there different ways. “We’ve found that the more we each have the freedom and flexibility to organize our time as guided by these flows (rather than trying to make these flows conform to set times), the more value we create, individually and as a team,” Shama Hyder, the founder of Zen Media, writes in Inc.
At the same time, companies can take steps to protect space for focus for all. Create opportunities for “do not disturb” time. Let employees know they won’t be penalized for turning off notifications. On the contrary, incentivize them to identify their most important work and limit their real-time responses to emails, texts, and instant messages. Organizations can and should develop anti-distraction policies around different communication channels and encourage the use of templates and auto-responses to common queries.
These digital best practices at the individual level are common-sense sanity preservation. At scale, they become a significant cost savings in the form of regained productivity and time for creativity. By tempering distractions to ensure teams only have the information they need close to hand, you’ll create an organizational culture more conducive to meaningful work. By pruning the onslaught of external stimuli, no one will have to keep staring at the clock. You’ll already know everyone is accomplishing what they truly want and need to get done.