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Getting work done in a world of distraction

It’s World Productivity Day (yes, that’s a thing.) Here’s what to do when every Slack, every text, and every email is slowing you down.

Getting work done in a world of distraction
[Source Images: Christina Morillo/Pexels, Padli Pradana/Pexels]

Ding! Ping! Ring!

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Most of us encounter a non-stop stream of notifications during the workday—notifications that divert our attention, distract our focus, and demand immediate action. How do you get work done when you must constantly switch tasks and refocus, only to be interrupted moments later? This is the all-important question in today’s workplace, and World Productivity Day is the perfect day to tackle this timely topic. On a day that recognizes the importance of being productive, let’s dive into what it means and how productivity should power today’s (and tomorrow’s) hybrid workplace.

Driven to Distraction

Productivity is not about doing more work. It’s actually defined as “the ability to complete a set amount of work in less time.” What isn’t factored into this definition: the constant distractions today’s worker confronts — and how these distractions impact productivity. Research indicates that it takes a person 23 minutes to regain their prior level of thought once distracted. That’s because our brain must stop processing what we’re doing as we shift to performing a new task. We then must shift back and refocus on the original work. As a result, pivoting to a quick task (like answering a Slack message) usually takes longer than the actual task itself. Bottom line: for every ding, ping, and ring that interrupts our focus, we waste 23 minutes.

The constant “focus-shift-refocus” we endured in the office has followed us home. In the office, we had chatty co-workers and an open-plan office. At home, we have kids, pets, and a stack of laundry. Moreover, the new technology we adopted to support remote work has unleashed a new set of distractions. Think about the “@ mention” alerts in your pieces of work (doc, figma file, or pull request) as well as real-time collaborative messaging in tools like Slack and Teams. They’re designed to make us stop what we are doing and check the latest alert or notification. It’s led to a cultural expectation of a speedy reply coupled with FOMO for missing an important update or not taking part in a conversation that’s happening in real time.

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Here’s the problem: If I get five notifications within five minutes, there is no differentiation in terms of urgency. One notification may tell me that our entire system is down. Another may alert me that my sandwich has arrived. I have no idea which tasks can be completed quickly without diving in to assess and analyze each notification. Even when you allot five minutes to handle what you think will be a quick task, it becomes a 15-minute scavenger hunt. Part of the information you need may be buried in a document while the context is hidden within a Slack message. Because we all work cross-functionally today, we often have to sort through a maze of information because different departments rely on various tools, documents, and spreadsheets.

Getting to “Productive,” Level by Level

Productive employees are happy employees (who doesn’t love feeling a sense of accomplishment?), and a productive business will reach important growth and profitability milestones more rapidly. Basically, important work is getting done with fewer resources in less time — and this productivity is reflected in operational and business metrics. So, how do you build and maintain a productive business?

At the leadership level, the most important thing you can do is clarify goals and priorities for all employees. You can do this by publishing company, department, and team-level goals for all to access, read, and reference. This ensures the right people are working on the right tasks at the right time — and that they are not wasting time on less important work. How do you empower people to get the right work done? Ensure they have the right tools (and the time) for work. The most valuable work requires (human) thinking, creativity, and analysis, so let automation, AI, and ML take care of the stare-and-compare tasks. This means your people can spend their time on strategic, high-value work that delivers world-class experiences to your customers.

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In the product realm, companies must have a bias toward action rather than perfection. If you overanalyze, you will get stuck in analysis paralysis. Basically, there are one-way door and two-way door decisions. A one-way door decision can be difficult to reverse without a lot of technical time and employee hours. However, a two-way door decision may involve releasing a small product feature and if it doesn’t work — you can go back through the other side of the door to fix, repair, and iterate.

One critical product-related lesson I have learned about one-way door decisions and two-way door decisions: product teams must differentiate between the two up front. Only invest a significant amount of time researching, debating, and discussing the one-way door decisions. For a two-way door, form your hypothesis with the minimum amount of information you need and act fast. Many companies waste valuable time because they don’t differentiate their one-way vs. two-way door decisions; they end up researching, debating, and discussing the two-way doors. The more two-way door features a business develops, the better — smart, small two-way door features can generate value and push the business forward. Meanwhile, customers will feel the impact of these incremental “value-add” pieces as you progress toward perfection. 

At the employee level, I encourage people to prioritize their work within different quadrants of an “urgent by important matrix.” This doesn’t need to be done in a spreadsheet; it can be done mentally. Is it “urgent and important”? If so, you should tackle that project first. Is it “important but not urgent”? Carve out focus time to get that work done. Is it neither important nor urgent? It may be worth delegating or exploring another workaround. You can turn projects within this matrix into a master checklist that you start and end each day with. Check off items you completed during the day, highlight what you will tackle tomorrow, and end the day with a clean slate and a feeling of accomplishment.

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Employees should feel comfortable blocking time on their calendar for focus work and thinking time. It’s OK to say “no” or “not now”; not everything needs to be done immediately. Also, think about when and where you are most productive. Can you be heads-down for six hours or do you work best in shorter sprints? Are you more productive in the morning or are you a night owl who works best when the hectic part of the day is behind you?  Employers can empower people to do their best work by encouraging and respecting employees’ different work styles.

Despite the flexibility and advances of the modern workplace, it often feels like we need to play “whack-a-mole” when we hear various alerts and notifications. How many pings popped up on your device in the time it took to read this article? Workers are fighting alert fatigue, information overload, and continuous distractions. Make a pledge today to double down on productivity by thinking about how you can help yourself and your team get in the productivity zone — and stay there — to do the best work that will move the needle for your business.


Briana Ings is vice president of product at ClickUp.

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