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The Hidden Costs of Distraction

April 2, 2018 4 Min Read Business Strategy

Many of us are old enough to remember the days before the internet, email, and the smartphone. If you are, take a moment to think back on a typical day in the office or plant. If it was anything like mine, it usually consisted of reasonably-sized blocks of uninterrupted time. Time you could use to think, strategize, prioritize, and refresh— all of the things that are critical for dealing with the complex, abstract issues that often have the largest impact on organizations.

Now think about life today. Most employees are almost always connected, faced with a never-ending barrage of emails and text messages from senders who expect immediate responses. And how do most of them deal with these requests? They habitually check their inboxes in order to see what’s in the queue, feebly attempting to chisel away at the mountain of requests only to wake up the next day and start all over again.

But why does this matter? It matters in particular for knowledge workers – a broad pool of professionals whose value is based on their intellectual skills. And, if you think about it, many knowledge workers are either directly responsible for strategy or are critical to execution (and either one without the other is worthless). The “stuff” that knowledge workers get paid for is the hard stuff, requiring problem solving skills, judgment, and creativity, and these types of activities are often best performed during periods of deep thought followed by periods of rest (the latter is particularly important because it’s often during those periods of rest when we experience an “aha” moment and find a solution to a vexing problem).

However, the time we provide employees for thought and reflection has eroded dramatically over the last few decades, and that erosion comes at a cost. There have been a number of studies demonstrating the harmful effects of distraction and multitasking on both productivity and employee satisfaction, and the results are disturbing. Consider these examples:

  • A study by Dr. Glenn Wilson, a psychiatrist at King's College London University, found that juggling messages resulted in a 10-point drop in IQ—the equivalent of losing a whole night’s sleep.
  • Another study from the University of Sussex (UK) found that the brains of people who used more than one device at a time had lower brain density in certain parts, and the jury’s still out on whether or not those changes could be long-lasting.
  • Sophie Leroy, a business professor at the University of Minnesota, conducted multiple studies and found that switching between tasks results in something called attention residue, which refers to the mind’s inability to immediately disengage from one task when moving to another, adversely impacting performance on the new task.
  • Finally, various studies have indicated that refocusing after a distraction can take as long as 25 minutes. Considering the number of email interruptions knowledge workers face every day, the cost of this lost time is staggering.

So how can you avoid draining the time and mind power of your knowledge workers? Here are some tips:

  • Try to use email sparingly, particularly if you are a leader. The more things we funnel off to employees, the more distractions they’ll face.
  • If you have to send something via email, consider scheduling it so that it doesn’t interrupt their flow in the middle of the day.
  • Encourage your employees to turn off email notifications on their computers.
  • Recommend that your employees schedule routine times to check email and to avoid checking email at other times.
  • Consider implementing programs such as no email Fridays or no email weekends. While it may sound unrealistic, many companies have implemented these programs and found that they increase productivity and employee morale.

By using these simple techniques for managing distractions, you can put your superstars in positions to maximize both the amount of time and mind power that they devote to the most important issues facing your business.

Christopher F Meshginpoosh CPAChristopher F. Meshginpoosh is managing director of Kreischer Miller and a specialist for the Center for Private Company Excellence. Contact him at Email.   



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