The Sneaky, Sucky Way Distraction Punctures Your Productivity

It takes 23 minutes to recover from a distraction. So where do they come from and how can we avoid them?

Oh, let me get back to it? Wait, what was I doing? Now I can finally get some real work done.

These are the low-level lamentations of a work life spent with a constant buzz of distraction. All of which is to say: We knowledge workers manage to get interrupted an insane and inane amount.

How often? According to University of California, Irvine business professor Gloria Mark, we get hit with a minor interruption—something that takes a moment to take care of—every three minutes. And we get hit with more major interruptions four times an hour, as Halvor Gregusson blogs at And the kicker is the time it takes to recover from such sundry slips of attention: It's a full 23 minutes until we get back on track, meaning that we're losing hours of work to all these interruptions. Every day.

Where the interruptions come from

Gregusson paints a reflective picture:

You might be tempted to blame email, text messages, IMs, and even other employees for the lion's share of these costly interruptions—and you’d be right . . . but just barely. While email was one of the biggest time killers (accounting for 23% of all distractions, according to Microsoft), Dr. Mark found that 44% of the time, the workers surveyed interrupted themselves. They simply moved on to other tasks, whether the first one was finished or not.

So just as our minds are given to wandering—though that's not always a bad thing—our tasks do as well.

Which is a bad thing.

Why? Because, as Gregusson notes, we try to make up for the time loss of distraction by making all sorts of heroic efforts at the expense of well-being and quality of work. He cites another study of Mark's, which finds that the distraction-prompted time crunch creates:

  • Increased stress levels.
  • Increased feelings of frustration.
  • Increased effort (or at least perceived effort).

None of which are very sustainable; all of which make work less enjoyable—and, we can imagine, can lead to the unsavory symptoms of burnout: exhaustion, alienation, and feeling as if you can never accomplish quite enough.

Bottom line: While switching from task to task might make you feel as though you're getting more done, that multitasking actually punctures your productivity.

Hat tip: Yast

[Image: Flickr user Mike McCune]

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  • Barbara P Chase

    You can't avoid them, just manage them. Pick a task, and assign a time slot to work on that item. Every time another "priority" pops up, tell yourself you'll think about it after you finish the assigned time slot. Start with a small interval and then increase it as you get better at maintaining focus. It also helps to clean off your desk and silence your mail/text/chat pop ups. Put a sign on your door if necessary, telling people to come back. Don't answer your phone.

  • Pchipperton

    Almost every week FastCo does a piece on something like this. Every week I email them to tell them that we have a solution to this. Why is no-one getting back to me??? CanFocus launched on KickStarter yesterday. We solve this. Honest. Come check us out.

  • Guest

    did they get distracted and forget to finish the article? I thought you were going to tell us how to avoid them.

  • Neil O'Keefe

    I hope it doesn't take me 20 minutes to recover from this distraction. What a waste.

  • Robert Jacoby


    Simple. Don't read articles like this. ;)