Increase Your Office Productivity by 25% by Minimizing Distractions

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Technology was supposed to make us all more efficient. But, as it turns out, it has created a society of distracted workers.

After all, who wants to do work when there are puppies learning to swim on YouTube or amazing sales on shoes on BlueFly?

Our cubicles are quickly becoming cozy dens for workaday entertainment, rather than the safe havens for productivity.

A 2010 survey by Workplace Options found that 42 percent of workers have started work early or stayed late in order to avoid distractions. Twenty-four percent of those surveyed said that the biggest distractions at work were people-related (office romances and water-cool chatter) and 23 percent said technology (phone calls, e-mail, social media, etc.) was the biggest offender.

Even with all of these distractions, 81 percent of responders said that their work had never suffered and that they’d never been reprimanded as a result of these workplace distractions.

While it seems like folks are muddling through the best they can, it probably isn’t a bad idea to take a hard look at your productivity and figure out how to maximize it – especially when having a job at all is a pretty big deal to some people.

Dr. David Rock, author of “Your Brain at Work,” writes that our brains have not yet caught up with the increased number of distractions we face, so we don’t fully understand the true cost of five minutes spent answering e-mail or 10 minutes spent on YouTube. Your brain has a a limited supply of attention, so each task you do tends to make you less effective at the next task.

Two high-energy tasks – decision-making and self-control – are especially affected if you are too easily distracted. When you allow your mind drift toward this or that, you’re actually hurting your ability to focus on the tough projects down the road.

Rock, who is the co-founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute, cited a study by the University of London which found that being constantly connected impacts your brain as much as losing a night’s sleep or smoking marijuana.

In his book, Rock sited the following statistics:

- Office distractions eat an average of 2.1 hours a day

- Employees spend an average of 11 minutes on a task before becoming distracted

- It takes 25 minutes for employees to return to the original task after being distracted

- People switch activities once every 3 minutes

When you’re ready to take an honest look at how productive you are in a day, start by keeping a time log which documents hour-by-hour (or minute-by-minute) how you spent your work day. You’ll probably be surprised at exactly how much time you spend not working.

After you’ve made your list, then it’s time to become disciplined about eliminating needless distractions and minimizing the amount of time you spend on “easy” tasks (e.g., checking e-mail, returning phone calls) to avoid the “hard” tasks (like writing a report or planning a presentation).

By our estimates, if you just eliminate the amount of time you spend surfing the internet for personal reasons, you’ll gain back at least 25 percent of your productivity.

How are tips on how to manage some of your workplace’s biggest distractions:

E-mail – A survey by Gartner Inc. found that corporate e-mail users spend an average of 49 minutes a day managing e-mail. Don’t open your e-mail first thing. Instead, Rock suggests spending the first part of your day working on thinking tasks, when your brain is the most rested and better able to focus. Set aside blocks of time later in your day to check and respond to e-mail. Because this is a more “interesting” task, your brain has an easier time handling it when it’s not as rested. Log off of e-mail, or turn off your e-mail notification for the rest of the day. Set a timer so you don’t get sucked into an e-mail vortex.

Phone – Like e-mail, you should set aside blocks of the day for answering and returning phone calls. If you’re spending time on a task that requires a lot of thought, consider setting your cell to silent and using the “send call” function on your office phone to send calls directly to voicemail. If you are concerned about emergencies, set up a system with your family, like having them call your receptionist or a trusted co-worker in the event that you don’t pick up your office or cell phone.

IM - Instant messaging can be a non-interfering, efficient way to get quick answers from co-workers about projects you’re working on. However, just like an overly chatty cubicle neighbor, it can also be an enormous time suck, as quick questions turn into flirtatious exchanges or time to catch up on office gossip. Not to mention, your exchanges aren’t necessarily secret as most companies have the ability to track conversations between employees. Now that we have your attention, here’s what you should do. Just like every other distraction, you should limit the amount of time you spend on IM. If co-workers do have legitimate questions, make yourself available for blocks of time during the day when you’re completing tasks that don’t require as much focus. Your co-workers will come to learn when you can chat and when you’re busy. Make sure to update your away messages to let people know when you’re next available to talk.

Social Media – Sites like Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin can be huge distractions for employees — some have even fessed up to spending up to 2 hours a day on Facebook while at work. While ignoring the siren call of photos from your cousin’s bachelorette party might be tough, your boss will be happier if you don’t go on any of these sites during work hours (unless, of course, you’re going on them for work). We suggest not bookmarking any time-sucking social media sites on your office computer. If you need a fix, wait until your lunch break and make sure not to post any updates that are disparaging to your company.

Other web surfing – Online shopping, booking vacations and watching videos on YouTube are all part of that 25 percent of time studies say employees waste online. It’s not a bad idea to start policing yourself on personal internet usage before your boss does. The simplest solution is to avoid using your office computer to do any sort of personal web surfing. At the very least, limit your eBay-ing and Expedia-ing to scheduled break times. Or, if you need internet access, come into work early or stay a little later to do what you need to do.

Visitors – If you’re absorbed in a project that needs 100 percent of your focus, hang a “do not disturb” sign on your door or cubicle wall to kindly let people know now is not the time to chat about last night’s games. If you’re the victim of “hey you got a second?” folks, let them know you need to finish up what you’re doing and figure out a reasonable (and convenient) time to catch up with them. If you can establish a daily routine, eventually your co-workers will pick up on the best times of the day to approach you.

Searching for things – Atlanta-area personal productivity coach Peggy Duncan says that people can spend up to 1.5 hours a day spent looking for lost items. Take back some time by cleaning off and organizing your workspace (reward yourself for organizing by picking up these adorable and functional office accessories). Eliminating clutter means you’ll spend less time digging through leaning stacks of papers in search of that missing invoice. Not to mention, a lot of extra clutter on your desk can be extremely distracting.

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