The Seemingly Harmless Habit Killing Your Productivity

Where multitasking and procrastination meet, it gets ugly. Regain control of what takes you off-task.

Picture this scenario: You come back to your desk after a meeting. You sit down. You start doing something on your computer. But what, exactly, do you do?

Chances are, you go through some sort of transition ritual. You probably check email first. If there’s a link to something interesting in there, you follow the link, then go from there to a few other favorite sites: a news source, Twitter, or maybe to check sports scores. After that, you finally settle into real work.

There’s nothing wrong with these rituals per se. Human beings need a way to transition from one activity into the next. The problem is that we get interrupted frequently in the modern workplace. Rituals become habits, and that means we run through the transition cycle every time we stop doing what we’re doing. One famous 2007 study found that when people responded to email or instant messaging alerts, it took them 10 to 15 minutes beyond time spent on the interruption to really get back into their original tasks. Those 10 to 15 minutes of headline checking add up.

Mapping the steps of distraction

So how can you get a grip on it? The first step is to be aware of it. Next time you find yourself in the midst of your transition ritual, write down its steps.

That way you can analyze how you might shorten the cycle--either by skipping one of the steps (hiding social media alerts, for instance) or starting a time-tracking app, and thus forcing yourself to watch the seconds of your life ticking away as you scroll through the same blog comments you already read 30 minutes before.

Play The Offense

I like that as a defensive strategy. But at work, as in sports, you really need to play offense to win. The two best ways to avoid getting lost in transition are to avoid the indecision trap, and do work you really want to do.

On the indecision front, the usual problem is that people have long to-do lists, but no idea what they intend to tackle after that 10 a.m. meeting. Transition rituals give the brain something mindless to do while it makes that decision.

But if you already know what you intend to do because you have assigned your priorities a spot on the schedule? Your brain won’t need the same processing time. I know that I’m scheduled to write this post right now, so when my sitter stopped by my home office because of a home maintenance issue that required immediate attention, I was able to fix the problem and then plunge right back into this. I didn’t need to go read about the unseasonal snowfall in Washington D.C. while I figured that out.

Get Interested in Your Work

Of course, I also really like writing about productivity. That leads us to the biggest driver of transition rituals: they’re often more interesting than the work we’re setting out to do. Formulating a witty comment on a favorite blog is more exciting than double checking the numbers on a spreadsheet pertaining to a project you’re pretty sure will be canceled anyway.

In the short term, there’s nothing you can do about that. But in the long term, life is too short to spend big chunks of it on work you don’t want to do. If you find yourself constantly lost in transition, it might be time to think about what sorts of projects you’d find as enjoyable as looking at friends’ vacation photos on Facebook. Work can’t be all like that, to be sure, but the more hours of it that are, the more productive you will be.

[Image: Flickr user Deeped Niclas & Amanda Strandh]

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6 Comments

  • John Ejl

    Great article to read, Laura! I can relate myself to your introduction about the scenario :D Sometimes I don't even know on what to do if I'm already in front of the computer. Yeah, like what you said, the first thing that most people do is to check their emails. I do that as well. I'm doing it thrice a day and sometimes I am hooked to those interesting links, and they're really killing my time.

    By the way, I followed the link to "time-tracking app" and you've put up a good list there. But if there's still a space at the bottom perhaps you could also include Time Doctor http://www.timedoctor.com (I'm using it by the way). The function of the software is mostly the same with those in the list but there are other integration and features that other software don't have. Just like the screenshot and reports feature which are detailed and concise.

  • I've been proactively trying to figure out my steps of distraction and taking steps to reduce them. It's starting to make a difference within about ten days.

  • So, like I ended up reading your post,, and now I'm responding, while I have an OFF LINE business that I need to be somewhere across town in 37 minutes, and have a new PART TIME gig that I am working on my fortune~ and enjoying one of our newest products in that as I get ready to sprint , and ultimately wind up back at my actual office to perform the ritual you describe........ hmmm.... not sure if you helped!! ~ Bru Mo from the heartland~ www.PyramidMoJoe.com