Wednesday, September 1, 2021

The Cost of Distractions

Actions to take: Cut out distractions and interruptions from your work, even ones that come from other parts of the job (e.g. email interruptions). Focus entirely on the task at hand. Use the time you save to rest your brain.

Tell me if you can relate to the following. There have been times in my life where I get home every day completely exhausted. My brain is so tired that I can't even carry on a conversation with my family. I started examining those days where I went home so drained. I eventually realized that my exhaustion wasn't tied to how much work I had done. It was tied to how busy I felt throughout the day.

Invariably, they were days where I never had the chance to focus. One thing and another kept coming up. Through the course of the day, I might end up attending to over 100 pieces of information (emails, tasks, questions from employees, etc.). Sometimes I would have to be actively thinking about 4 or 5 separate things at once because I got interrupted from my interruption. 

The last thing I noticed: The days I felt most exhausted were never the days where I got a lot of work done.

Let's talk about the cost of task switching. Assume it takes about one minute to mentally switch between tasks. Yes, you can be deeply involved in something, get asked a yes-no question, answer, and go back to what you were doing. That may take less than a minute. However, you will lose something in the exchange. When you return to your task, you won't be totally absorbed in the task the way you were before. Thoughts will come just a touch slower. It takes time to get back in the flow of what you were doing.

Call that loss of efficiency a one-minute cost. It is probably much more than that. We'll keep our estimate simple though. If you have two tasks that normally take 30 minutes, doing one completely then the other completely will take 61 minutes (one switch). Now imagine that you switch between the tasks every 5 minutes. With just one minute of productivity loss due to switching, that 60 minutes of work becomes 71 minutes of work (11 switches).

Obviously, no one would intentionally work like that. But almost all of us do something far worse. We leave email on, phone ring volumes up, a bunch of Slack chats and social media notifications and whatever else ready to interrupt us. I took an informal poll of colleagues about their distractions. The average of that small poll was 15 distractions every hour. 25% of our time is used just on the mental energy cost of switching tasks.

Fix it. You'll be happier and better at your job. Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Turn off all email notifications. Close the email app entirely. Check it only 3 times per day if your office culture makes this even remotely possible. Your workplace can survive without you constantly checking email much more easily than you think. Do a similar thing with Slack chats and other "always up" communication methods.
  2. Turn down distractions from others. If someone stops by to engage in conversation or ask a question, it is okay to say, "I'm really involved in something at the moment. Can you stop by later?" 
  3. Quit setting yourself up for failure. I bet you are creating at least half of these distractions. Close the social media windows on your computer. Turn off the notifications on your phone. Turn off your phone entirely.
  4. Set your intention when you start a task. Tell yourself that you will work without interruption for however long, then follow through.

Each of these actions could be fleshed out into an entire post on its own. Take a moment to think through how exactly you would do each and how you would benefit from them.

This isn't about making you a more productive cog to improve whatever machine you work for. That is going to happen anyway. The work you produce will be significantly higher quality when you start focusing deeply on one task at a time. You will likely find that "30 minute" tasks are in fact 20 minute tasks when you don't have distractions. It is, however, a side benefit. 

The main benefit is to you personally. I encourage you to claim the saved time for yourself. Work without distraction for 50 minutes. Then take a full, relaxing, totally-for-you break for 10 minutes. Take a walk. Close your eyes and recline in your chair. Let your brain rest for those 10 minutes. I am certain you will be more productive and get more done than back when you were "always" working. Test it out for a week and see if I'm wrong.

So far, we've talked about task-switching as a time cost. It is a mental cost too. When you cut down on task-switching, you use less mental energy throughout the day. You feel better. You feel happier. You are more pleasant to be around. You feel more satisfied with the work you've done. 

When you're in a better mood with more mental energy and greater satisfaction about your work, it comes through in your social interactions. You'll be a better boss.

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