Distractions at work are nothing new. Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch) wrote about strategies for dealing with work distractions way back in the 1300s. In his Life of Solitude , Petrarch offers the following advice for the medieval scholar: "Close the doors of your senses in order to achieve solitude in the presence of other people." Today, you will find many people doing exactly that in coffee shops and other public places.
Yet distractions have gotten worse, much worse, in fact, and technology is largely to blame. As late as the 1960s, the only piece of technology on a worker’s desk was a telephone (and maybe a typewriter). Contrast that with today’s collage of desktop computer, notebook computer, voice over IP (video) phone, smartphone, iPod, iPad, and other devices. Each one of these electronic "servants" vie for the attention of its master with beeping alerts, trendy ringtones, and flashing screens. This army of devices is overloading us with information, and we battle to keep up.
According to the New York Times , we consume three times more information today than we did in 1960. In fact, we are being interrupted 11 times an hour, according to Basex Research , and these interruptions are taking an hour and a half out of our workday, according to a recent uSamp survey . The cost? More $10,000 per employee per year, according to the same survey. A Stanford study found that interruptions cost more than money; they cost us our health through increased stress. And if you think that today’s Gen Y multitaskers are less affected, note that another Stanford study  found that multi-taskers are actually impacted more by interruptions than non-multi-taskers.
What can we do to fight distractions and reduce stress? Here are six proven strategies, three for individuals and three for organizations.
- Turn off alerts. Email and instant message alerts are one of the biggest causes of interruptions. One study found that 71% of people answer IM alerts within 2 seconds, and 41% of people respond to email alerts within 15 seconds. Turning these off will do wonders for productivity.
- Off-site, out of mind. If you have work that requires deep thought or creativity, like writing or coming up with new ideas, find a quiet place outside the office, like a library or study, where there are fewer distractions.
- Be "alone in the crowd." Follow Petrarch’s 650-year-old advice and find a way to shut out the world in crowded spaces. For example, work in a café with a pair of headphones. Many people find it easy to shut out distractions when they are not targeted at them.
- Create email policies. Limit the number of email recipients for a given message. Limit the length of an email thread, and encourage people to pick up the phone instead of sending endless emails. Discourage the use of email’s "cc" capability.
- Create meeting policies. Not all meetings need to be an hour or a half hour. Shorten meetings and make sure computers are closed (unless needed for note taking), phones are off, and insist that texting is strictly verboten.
- Reduce context switching. Workers change windows 37 times an hour, on average, according to the New York Times . We use too many applications to get work done. We spend the day cutting information from one window into another; all this toggling is sapping us of our ability to work. New collaboration tools are actually making things worse. Forrester Research found that 61% of organizations have invested in 5 or more collaboration tools, but that most of them are not being used effectively. At one of my recent seminars, one participant went as far as to say, "If I have to use one more productivity tool, I won’t get ANY work done." The key is to make what you have already work better by integrating them so typical workflows like document and knowledge sharing are contained in a work context.
For more on reducing distractions in the workplace, see author David Lavenda's presentation Now, Where Was I: Digital Distractions In the Workplace.  To submit your own "distraction story" for future posts, please email firstname.lastname@example.org .
[Image: Flickr user joshuahoffmanphoto ]