How Distractions Affect Productivity At Work [Science-based]
Productivity Tips

How Distractions Affect Productivity At Work [Science-based]

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As the average worker only gets about three hours of focused work per day, it’s clear that there are too many distractions in everyone’s life. Let’s take a look at what research says on how distractions affect productivity in the workplace and what we can do to minimize the negative effects!

Common distractions in the workplace

Out of the variety of different factors that affect your workplace productivity, there are a few that are known to be the most common distraction sources for full-time workers.

What do you think your personal biggest distraction from work is? And can you guess the top-4 we are gonna talk about? Tell me in the comments before reading further!

Now, let’s see what are the top workplace distractions according to different studies!

Workplace Distraction 1 – Noisy environment

noisy environment at work affects productivity

According to the workplace distraction report from Udemy, 70% of surveyed employees named noisy office environment to be one of their top distractions. Whether it comes from chatty colleagues, technology signals, or construction outside, it significantly lowers everyone’s productivity levels.

At the same time, another study found that performance isn’t directly related to the time a person is exposed to the noise, which implies that our ability to adapt kicks in at some point and helps ignore the constant noise and keep us productive.

Tip: Use a free tool like Noisli or Monk Mode to shut real noise off and listen to gentle nature sounds instead. Combine it with a pair of good-quality noise-canceling headphones and enjoy your productivity growth!

Workplace Distraction 2 – Social media

It may not feel like it but social networks make the biggest workplace distraction of our time. You may think that you only take a quick look here and there but when you look into the actual numbers… ouch!

Recent research showed that an average person spends about an hour per day on each of the bigger social media like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, or Youtube! It also estimates that it’s more than six years wasted on social media from everyone’s lifetime. Which is about twice more than we spend on eating and drinking during our whole life. Isn’t it crazy when you think about it?!

The scariest part is that we can hardly control our behavior once we get hooked. Social media companies hire smart people who understand how our brains work and use all kinds of neural triggers to get us addicted to their product so we keep scrolling for longer periods of time and keep coming back for more.

The reward system we all have inside our brain is a big part of how it all works. If you don’t know about dopamine and how social networks can leverage it, this short article from Harvard University will give you some insight.

If you are someone who checks social media way too often, try to use special time tracking software that blocks your access to everything you don’t need for work for selected periods of time. Blocking the obvious distractions like that is proven to significantly increase productivity and focus so you can get more done.

Workplace Distraction 3 – Coworkers

According to engineers on Quora, one of their biggest distraction from focused work is team member interruptions.

interruptions from colleagues are the most common factor of low productivity

Coming by someone’s desk for a quick question may seem harmless but in some cases, such a flow interruption may take a person a few hours back and erase all the recent progress. Research showed that it takes more than 20 minutes to immerse back into work every time you get distracted like that. Even if you only do this once a day to someone, and everyone else does too, the amount of time lost because of these interruptions sums up and can influence the whole team’s productivity in the long run.

One way to avoid people doing this to you regularly is: Be Less Accessible!

Put a Do Not Disturb sign on your door or a status calendar on your desk if you don’t have a door. Let everyone know the time window when you are available for work discussions and questions. Have a dedicated time for sync up calls and specifically ask people not to interrupt you outside those meetings to ask for status updates. Finally, make some simple adjustments to look busy and turn chatty coworkers away!

Workplace Distraction 4 – TV and video games

This one is the last on my list but for many people it’s actually the worst!

Initially, I didn’t intend this to be on my list of top workplace distractions but as I base all this on science and the studies I found on a subject, TV made the list.

A recent survey conducted by Glassdoor in the context of quarantine and remote work showed that for 32% of the interviewed adults watching TV is the main distraction factor at home.

Honestly, I had no idea it’s that bad for people! Are you as surprised as I am? Or are you guilty of watching TV and playing games during working hours too?

The world is obviously changing. As more people get to work from home, we now get even more distraction factors to resist than we had before.

But enough with distractions already! We all know what they are so let’s see what they do to us!

Common effects of distractions at work

It’s obvious that distractions at work lead to bad productivity and poor results. But how exactly it happens and what are the most noticeable negative effects of frequent distractions in the workplace? Does it all adds up and gets even worse over time? Let’s find out!

common effects of distractions at work

Effects of distraction on attention

Distraction’s main goal by definition is literally to pull your attention from whatever you are doing and put it into something completely different. That’s a skill that social media are extremely good at: they compete for your attention against your work and often win cause they offer more pleasurable experiences.

Human attention span has been stated to be very low thanks to all the technology we have, and this value only shrinks with years. It takes more brainpower than before to keep yourself in a focused state, and the least you can do is try to minimize external distractions.

The more undivided attention you dedicate to your task, the better quality results you end up with.

Impact of different distractions on productivity

Do you think work-related interruptions are less harmful to your productivity than random office gossip? If so, you are wrong.

Gloria Mark, a professor from the University of California, Irvine who specializes in social media impact research, performed a study to figure out if the context of interruptions makes any difference for productivity. Turns out, it doesn’t.

People who were interrupted with questions on completely different topics experienced the same impact on their productivity as those who were distracted by relevant questions. This means that a break is a break, whether you talk about the project or your exciting weekend plans.

How do interruptions affect concentration?

Numerous clinical trials conducted by Dr. Glenn Wilson from London University showed how badly frequent distractions influence the brain. Among others, emails seemed to be the worst before, although in 2021 it’s likely to be social media. In fact, the complete lack of control when it comes to managing emails is proven to do long-term damage to the brain.

Can you imagine that it can lower your IQ twice worse than cannabis does? It’s related to being in a constant state of jumping from one thing to another: as a result, the brain gets tired and slows down inevitably. So much for multitasking! Turns out, being addicted to checking your messages actually makes you less smart. Maybe consider those blocking tools now?

Effects of distraction on memory

Our brain can only actively cover so many things at once. If you just found a good solution to a problem and someone interrupts your thought, you may need to look for a solution all over again. If only you could predict the interruption and write it down!

Imagine that you are in the supermarket and read the next 5 things from your grocery list. Suddenly a stranger asks you where is the dairy aisle, you stop and politely answer, and continue going. But where were you going? Wait, what were those 5 things again?

effects of distractions on memory

These simple examples show how distractions affect your short-term memory, and this is exactly what happens when you are trying to focus in the workplace.

How distractions disrupt time management

When your plan your work, you expect certain parts of it to be done in more or less specified time frames. Whether you have strict deadlines or not, your estimates are put at risk every time your workflow gets interrupted.

Too many distractions may even force you to work overtime in order to meet the deadline. Studies prove that there is a direct correlation between overtime and burnout effect, which implies that working overtime may be good for business but not so much for mental health. And forget about that fragile work-life balance if you are constantly worried about the workload!

Besides that, setting wrong estimates and failing deadlines leads to low confidence in coworkers which influences productivity even worse in the long run. But are distractions really that bad?

Surprisingly, Professor Mark’s study showed that people appear to work faster when constantly interrupted. She mentions that because of the increased time pressure they develop a highly-effective work rhythm to compensate for the time lost due to distractions.

Sadly, this boost comes with a price: reports showed significantly increased stress levels after only 20 minutes of interruption. What happens when it’s all day every day? Nothing good.

Effects of distraction on mental health

Not right away but gradually, frequent distractions may lead to increased anxiety or even depression.

Remember the deadlines? The more time pressure you feel, the more stressed you get. After a few missed deadlines, a fear of failure starts to announce itself to you. You get even more stressed, your self-esteem drops, you start to push yourself to work more, and feel guilty for not meeting your own expectations all the time. Hello, burnout!

The more working systems you have in place, the less stress you experience on a daily basis. Organize your workplace in a smart way so it puts you into a working mood and protects you from most distractions!

Distractions among other factors affect the accuracy

Especially while working with sensitive data, it’s critical to avoid interruptions that lead to making mistakes. Depending on your area of expertise, mistakes can either be easy to fix or they can lead to serious trouble. In any case, they always take a bite from your precious time to find and deal with.

how distractions affect the accuracy

Various investigations show the influence of momentary interruptions on the accuracy of work that follows it. When 2.8 seconds-long interruption doubles the amount of errors made, a 4.4 second-long interruption is enough to triple them!

No matter how quick you think it is, better not interrupt a working person if it can wait.

Frequent interruptions increase irritability

Who wouldn’t get frustrated when the workflow is constantly interrupted? You just got into a productive mood and jumped on a task when suddenly someone comes by to ask you a quick question. You help a person cause you’re nice and all, and ten minutes later someone else comes in. Your phone buzzes with an invite from a friend and you respond only to see an incoming request for a quick phone call from your business partner. It’s lunch time already and you go eat, come back a bit worried about your productivity for the day, dive back into that first task… and see that first colleague again who just wants a tiny little clarification.

If you get angry at this point, I don’t blame you! This reminds me of a fun old television show called Boiling Points that was on air back in 2004. Guests were unknowingly put in very irritating situations and could win a $100 cash if they stayed calm long enough. Not many of them won though as we are chemically wired to get angry when provoked.

Not every day is like that of course but sometimes it happens. That’s why it’s important to have a few tricks up your sleeve that secure your focused time and eliminate distractions as much as possible!

How to protect yourself from a distraction

It’s important to use different strategies for different types of distractions! From hiding your phone from your eyesight to buying a special toy for your dog, there are multiple things you can do as soon as you recognize your main distraction factors.

Earlier I listed my most effective tips for managing distractions in the workplace. That post covers prioritizing things and organizing your work in a way to get rid of the most common sources of interruptions. It should help you manage your workload as I recommend a few useful tools you can use in the process.

You might also find interesting this fun video from BBC Ideas! It shows how internal triggers in your brain make you distract yourself even when there are no obvious interruptions.

Conclusion on how distraction affects work performance

A survey conducted by Udemy showed many ways in which office workers benefit from reducing workplace distractions.

benefits of reducing workplace distractions

It’s clear now that there is a direct connection between the various distractions at work and productivity. Eliminating as many of them as possible will always improve the performance and quality of the work you manage to get done.

To finish this, here are 100 inspirational quotes about distractions I hand-picked that should inspire you to stay focused and stick to your goals!

Read More About Avoiding Distractions

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