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Last Updated on March 2, 2018

The Ugly Truth About the Things That Distract Us Every Day

The Ugly Truth About the Things That Distract Us Every Day

Employees waste about 60 hours per month — or roughly 759 hours per year — on workplace distractions such as chatty colleagues coming into your office, unnecessary phone calls, instant message and email notifications that probably didn’t need to be answered, and more.[1] Our default condition as humans is often to respond to “push,” i.e. embrace a distraction without even realizing we’re doing it.[2]

Checking email when it pings or turning a five-minute conversation with a chatty colleague into a 35-minute one are obvious distractions. There are also hidden distractions throughout our daily lives: suddenly gazing out the window, absent-mindedly checking Facebook, online shopping, and staring at your computer but not doing anything. We are often hard-wired to pursue instant gratification, and simultaneously lack the motivation to stay focused.

Distractions keep us busy, but not productive

The end result of all these distractions is one of the great productivity challenges of our time: the confusion of “busy” and “productive.” Those words do not mean the same thing. It’s a giant lie. When you consistently give into distractions, you are only doing repetitive work that enables the operation of a task.

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This is what many workers actually don’t realize they’re doing for the bulk of a year. They’re seemingly busy but aren’t actually achieving anything. You arrive at work and start checking emails. You respond. Next thing you know, it’s 12 noon — almost lunch — and all you’ve done is answering emails. In the afternoon, you update documents. When you leave work, you haven’t really done anything big. Your day was all shallow work. You might not even realize it because you did get some things done. In fact, 7.5 out of every 10 minutes of an employee’s day is spent on these low-value tasks.[3]

Some call this “checking boxes,” but another term for it is “shallow work.” This was termed by author and Georgetown professor Cal Newport in his book Deep WorkIn shallow work, because it’s so task-driven and often immediate (putting out fires), no real improvements are made, and no big goals or breakthroughs can truly be attained. Imagine responding to emails and formatting documents for an entire calendar year, you would not feel fulfilled.

Regain your control on distractions

1. Block out uncontrollable distractions

This can be done with “time blocking,” which some also call “uninterrupted work time.”[4] Basecamp founder Jason Fried has called four hours of uninterrupted work “the greatest gift someone can give themselves.”[5]

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To execute this, simply block out time on your own office calendar — maybe a few hours Monday morning to set the tone of the week, a few hours on Wednesday to work on long-term projects, and a few hours on Friday to plan for the next week. People will often see the time, assume you are in another meeting, and not try to get access to you during those blocks unless it’s urgent. If you can successfully block out a few hours a couple of times per week, you can ultimately regain 150 hours/month of productivity.[6]

Be the CEO of your own time. You can’t always be available to everyone at that second, because you’ll run in circles on different projects and burn out.

2. Watch out for your work pattern

Once you have better control of your time, you need to find a way to reduce your internal distractions. One approach is to keep a scoreboard. Track your time and see what’s spent on shallow projects and what’s spent on deeper, strategic work.

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If you work 50 hours/week and see that only 2 hours are spent strategically, the scoreboard should indicate to you that a change is necessary. You will never completely eliminate shallow work, no. Some things just need to get done. But you need to have a balance that leans toward deeper work.

3. Use small wins to stay motivated

Your brain needs to win. And it needs to win often. When you don’t feel excited about what you do, your mind shifts its focus. The book, The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work tells that tracking and recognizing efforts of small, daily achievements can enhance workers motivation and increase positive emotions. Any accomplishment, no matter how small, activates the reward circuitry of our brains. When you feel that what you do has values, you will not lose your motivation so easily.

Staying focus in a distracted world

The world is an extremely distracted place right now. In a given minute on Facebook, 236,000 statuses and 136,000 photos are posted.[7] The amount of distraction available to us is very large, and probably growing. Because of decreased attention spans, we focus only about six hours per week.[8] That’s less than at any other time in human history we’ve studied.

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If you’re getting more done in less time and focusing on the right priorities, you would be a competitive advantage for your career and personal development. It’s very hard to advance professionally if you’re seen as a drone worker — one that answers emails and updates spreadsheets. Those are cogs in the machine. While necessary, no one thinks of them as irreplaceable. By getting rid of distractions, increases the quality of your work, your own personal motivation, your focus, and your career aspects. You will move towards doing more meaningful works that are more strategic and essential to the company’s future growth.

If you see the benefits of making the transition away from task-driven, repetitive, shallow work to a more focused work in your career, I will show you how to transit from shallow work to deep work in my next article. Come on back for that.

Featured photo credit: Jeannie Phan via jeanniephan.com

Reference

More by this author

Leon Ho

Founder & CEO of Lifehack

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Last Updated on February 18, 2019

How to Motivate Employees and Boost Team Productivity

How to Motivate Employees and Boost Team Productivity

These days, in a world with cognitive, AI, and extraordinary advances, we have failed at the most basic stimulus: motivation. Why do I say so? Just take a look at these statistics:

58 percent of managers said they didn’t receive any management training as per a CareerBuilder.com survey. Only 12% of employees leave their jobs because of more money. Research indicates that around 80% of employees leave their jobs due to “lack of appreciation”. Due to fear of failing, more than half of American workers don’t take their paid vacations. 53% of Americans are unhappy at work (not engaged). And 1 in 3 are working in a field they don’t like.[1]

Archaic people management and HR structures are the root cause.

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery

So how to motivate employees and boost team productivity?

Here are 3 key things that you can do to motivate your employees and boost team productivity:

1. Run Your Team/Group/Company like a Lean Startup

The Lean Startup phenomena by Eric Ries has been socialized across millions all over the globe. In a nutshell, it is a methodology for developing businesses and products, which aims to shorten product development cycles and rapidly discover if a proposed business model is viable; this is achieved by adopting a combination of business-hypothesis-driven experimentation, iterative product releases, and validated learning.[2]

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Encourage Your Employees

When you empower your employees (or family members) to do what they deem to be best for a particular roadblock, idea, or improvement, you create magic. You create genuine trust. You enable innovation. The result is happy, inspired employees who feel they have a say in the grand cosmic stage at work.

Note that increasing the competency level of employees and coaching and mentoring them along the way is key. You yourself, need to do the same. Nourish your brain – and get a mentor that will keep you at the edge of your game.

Offer Rewards

Motivation is also intrinsic. The startups I have worked at offered instant rewards — not just fat checks or equity increments, but Oscar-style nominations.

The non-monetary rewards were actually more coveted, and grandiose: lunch with the CEO, tickets to an Obama fund-raiser, horse-back riding with a world-class equestrian.

Compare this to a dodgy, corporate, white-cubicle dinosaur that had a “yearly performance review” where both parties dread the conversation. In a world of instant WhatsApp messages, having a conversation about performance, likes and dislikes cannot just happen annually in 60 minutes. Employees need to be rooted in the belief that their manager genuinely cares about them.

Give Autonomy

Another key attribute is autonomy. Most employees start brushing their resumes and cruising LinkedIn when their hands are tied in their current positions: approval forms, long meetings, escalations, and more meetings. In the world of agile and scrum masters, deliberating for the sake of deliberating is poison. You will choke the very employees that giddily accepted the job initially to “change the world”.

Within a reasonable realm of assessment and deep-dives, trust your employees to do the heavy lifting. Give them access to the knowledge, people and resources that help them directly make the choices that will shape the future of your team, and your company.

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Eliminate yourself as the bottleneck – and interject yourself as a benevolent, servant leader that is the symbol of high-performing organizations.

2. Apply the 90/90/1 Rule

I recently saw a video by Deepak Sharma (a leadership adviser) about productivity and this principle stuck with me. Here’s what it’s about:

Devote the First 90 Minutes of Your Day to Important Project

For the next 90 days, devote the first 90 minutes of your day to your most important project—nothing else. Do this for yourself and your employees.

We usually get sucked into the most wasteful, operational activities in the morning which robs our focus, and steers us into an unwanted rabbit hole. So mute your notifications, avoid the temptation to check your exploding inbox, and scroll your Instagram feed later. Instead, focus on that ONE thing that will provide real value to you, your team, or your business/company/home.

Apply this rule to yourself – and your team. Your team will thank you. Note: If you’re feeling really stretched for time, you can always hack the rule by testing out a “45/45/1” version.

A To Do Scheduling System

Another version of this is to use the Kanban concept, developed by Taiichi Ohno, an industrial engineer at Toyota. Kanban is a scheduling system employing boards and cards.

The most basic version is a canvas with “To-do”, “Doing”, and “Done” boards (or columns). Each activity or task is a “card” that moves from one column to the other. I use Trello (a Kanban-inspired app) that is a key system for my personal and professional life. It allows me to understand my workload, their priority, and due dates.

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I use importance and effort metrics (scores) for each task to understand what is truly necessary in my life to work on. It negates the FIFO (first-in, first out) paradox that has plagued millions of people. Instead, it allows me to take stock of what is on my plate, and then bite on what truly will move the needle for me, my team, my life, and my company.

With a limited appetite (at least for some), would you eat the veggies, fries, mashed potatoes and leave the sizzling steak? No, you wouldn’t (unless you are a vegan and ended up in the wrong restaurant).

Approach your work with a weighted vengeance – and encourage your team to do the same.

3. Align Passion and Skills to Purpose

The heart of human excellence often begins to beat when you discover a pursuit that absorbs you, frees you, challenges you, and gives you a sense of meaning, joy and passion.

“The most fortunate people on earth are those who have found a calling that’s bigger than they are—that moves them and fills their lives with constant passion, aliveness, and growth.” — Richard Leider

An ace team-member once told me that while she enjoys working for the company we both used to work at, she really hated anything to do with technology. She was more of a “people” person, and did not want to sit behind a desk sifting through lines of code.

What struck me was that she was in that role for more than a decade and had just spoken up. The good thing is she spoke up. She expressed her desire and interests. And it allowed her to get into a role of her liking within 30 days.

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Ask If They like What They’re Doing

If you, or a team member is frustrated, demotivated, or not performing at their best – one of the questions you should ask is whether they like what they are doing. Then genuinely try to help them get to the role they should be in (whether in the same team/company or not).

There’s a reason why 53% of Americans (and perhaps more or same across the globe) are unhappy at work. A butcher cannot be an ace salad maker. Pursue your passion – and help pave the way for your team. Unlock your potential and theirs. You will command and lead a supercharged team.

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.” – Steve Jobs

The Bottom Line

Sometimes, passion has to be ignited. It is dormant, clouded by busy-ness, buried by wrong career choices, and plagued by non-supportive eco-systems. Some will climb out of it, but we as society — and in the case of business teams — incumbent upon the manager/CEO/leader to foster, grow, and nurture the employee.

Teach her the ropes. Show her the path. Advise him as you would yourself. Let them lead, and make mistakes. Do not fear them, rather make them the leader you would want to become.

For your not-so-great team members, understand that it is not personal, it is just not a good fit. Help them move on to the pastures they would be fit to graze on. Hence, hire slow (and fire fast).

Your team is a reflection of you. Boosting their confidence and helping them achieve the impossible is motivation. Focus on that, and you will have a productive team that you and your company will be proud of.

More Resources About Team Management

Featured photo credit: rawpixel via unsplash.com

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