The 9 Big Workplace Distractions and how to Counter them

By | 2018-02-20T17:15:35+00:00 June 9th, 2016|Categories: Advice|Tags: |

In a CareerBuilder survey of more than 2,000 hiring and HR managers, from companies of all different industries and sizes it was found that, among some very strange reasons for not being productive, there are 9 very definitive reasons why we’re distracted while at work.

The key to avoiding these distractions is identifying them and knowing how to quash them before they take hold.

When asked to name the biggest productivity killers in the workplace, employers cited the following:

1. Mobile phones/texting: 52 percent
2. The Internet: 44 percent
3. Gossip: 37 percent
4. Social media: 36 percent
5. Email: 31 percent
6. Co-workers dropping by: 27 percent
7. Meetings: 26 percent
8. Smoke breaks/snack breaks: 27 percent
9. Noisy co-workers: 17 percent

Becoming distracted may seem, at the time, like it only affects us for a few seconds. However, in reality a lack of focus contributes to a substantial reduction in productivity and costs companies around the world large sums of money.
The consequences of distraction include:

  • Compromised quality of work: 45 percent
  • Lower morale, because other workers have to pick up the slack: 30 percent
  • Negative impact of boss/employee relationship: 25 percent
  • Missed deadlines: 24 percent
  • Loss in revenue: 21 percent


How can you combat the 9 biggest causes of distraction in the office?

1. Mobile phones/texting

The amount of time we spend using our mobile phones has increased significantly, in line with the expansion of functionality they offer us. When mobile devices were in their infancy, such as the Nokia 3310, they were very limited in terms of what information they could provide and what they could be used for.
Other than basic calling options, early mobiles pretty much consisted of a phone book, messaging and one or two primitive games (such as ‘Snake’).
There wasn’t any reason to spend more than a few minutes using such devices and so they only ever distracted us when we had to react to an incoming call or text message.

mobile phone distractionNow that mobile devices can perform a plethora of tasks, such as enabling us to access the answers to any questions, and allow us to keep track, in real time, of what our friends are up to (among other things), they’ve also evolved to become the biggest distraction in our working (and probably personal) lives.

The only way to truly rule them out as a distraction is to turn them off while at work, however this is often not practical. Many of us will use our phone, whether provided by our employer or owned, in relation to our job – which rules out cutting off the power completely.
One way to remove the distraction of apps and the internet is to turn off mobile data on your device. This still enables a voice call or texts to get through, should someone need to contact you, but removes many of the less-than-vital communications or notifications about the news, weather or favourite celebrity show.

2. The Internet

internet-distractionThe internet is all around us, literally. According to this Telegraph article, we spend an average of two hours a day browsing the internet. We’re probably within sight of at least a couple of devices that allow us to browse the web and become distracted within seconds. Indeed, most of us probably couldn’t perform our roles without the use of the internet in some form or another.
From cloud platforms, that enable us to track employees, to collaborating with our colleagues while working from home, we typically need to be online at some point during the day.

If we can’t turn the internet off altogether, then the next best option is to limit the time spent accessing non-essential sites. There are a number of tools that enable us to do this, including the following procrastination-busting Chrome apps:

Nanny for Google Chrome (previously Chrome Nanny) allows you to be more productive and less distracted by blocking sites.

“Awesome app! I no longer waste time at Reddit and Amazon during work. I know we shouldn’t have to rely on an app like this to keep us productive, but we also do not have to eat that delicious chocolate candy bar sitting on the counter.”

StayFocusd increases your productivity by limiting the amount of time that you can spend on time-wasting websites.

“I wish I could have had this 20 years ago, I am a chronic procrastinator and this is a huge help!”

Strict Workflow enforces a 25min/5min workflow: 25 minutes of distraction-free work, followed by 5 minutes of break.

“So simple yet effective. Helped me focus more. Without this extension, I would push back work. But with this extension, I instead push back the distractions!”

RescueTime helps to keep track of the time you spend in Chrome, and get a clear picture of what you were doing all day.

“Absolutely fantastic! This logs time perfectly with rich reports and customization to show you exactly where your time has gone. Best of all it can even track time on applications OUTSIDE of Chrome if you prefer :)”

3. Gossip

People gossip for a number of reasons, including:

  • To feel superior
  • Out of boredom
  • Out of envy
  • To feel like part of the group
  • For attention
  • Out of anger or unhappiness

office gossipWhatever the reason, there will be times when conversations around you start to affect your daily productivity. As well as avoiding potential conflicts with your colleagues, it’s a good idea to avoid the office gossip to remain productive.
It’s difficult not to get drawn into conversations when they’re happening for most of the day (and all around you), but there is a way to remain focussed.

Remove yourself from the environment in which the idle chitchat is taking place. You can either work from home or simply move to another office/area of the room, where you’ll be away from those causing the distraction.
Another option is to listen to music, an audio book or comedy on some headphones. This will block out the distraction, but still allow your colleagues to get your attention should they need to.

If the gossip always stems from a particular colleague, then you could have a quiet word with them. Failing that, simply (and politely) mentioning that the chatter is distracting may be enough to calm things down. If others want to waste time, then that’s their lookout – you don’t need to get involved.

4. Social media

I’m not sure whether browsing and interacting on social media contributed to the ‘Internet’ and ‘Mobile phone’ stats below, but I’d be surprised if they didn’t. In either case, the amount of time we spend on social media is staggering:

  • Britons spend an estimated 62 million hours each day on Facebook and Twitter, according to a new survey on social media habits
  • Approx 34 million hours are spent on Facebook each day, with a further 28 million hours on Twitter
  • And almost a third (30%) of the UK’s 33 million Facebook users are on the network for at least an hour a day, with 13% spending at least two hours on Facebook each day
  • More than a quarter (26%) of UK women on Facebook check their pages at least 10 times a day, compared to less than one in five (18%) of men
  • Of the UK’s estimated 26 million Twitter users, almost a third (31%) spend more than an hour a day on the network, while 14%, more than 3.6 million people, say their daily usage exceeds two hours

Source: The Independent

instagramMany people describe themselves as ‘addicted to social media’ and would be the first to admit that they spend far too much time keeping track of everything on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Google+, LinkedIn, Instagram, Pinterest, Quora, Reddit, etc. The problem with this constant attention (other than the waste of time) is that it’s often at the expense of the business paying them to be working and not looking through friend’s feeds and holiday photos.

Restricting your social notifications will stop you reacting to social updates; removing the networks from your favourites (or placing them in a folder less accessible) is also an effective option.
You could also create a second ‘working’ identity for online services and apps like Google and the Chrome web browser, which doesn’t have social media in the favourites and has only those sites that are work-related available.

Catching up on what’s going on in your social life online can be done at lunchtime, there’s very rarely anything urgent that requires your attention immediately. It can wait.
5. Bottomless inbox

Trying to instantly action and reply to emails as they arrive is a one-way road to distraction. Instead of continuously checking your inbox, use set time slots – run a sweep of the emails that require action a couple of times a day.
email distractionUsing filters within your email software allows you to automate many of the tasks and processes that you spend time completing manually and, as such, keep you away from other duties.
If you receive a large quantity of emails where you’re simply copied into for reference (and there are no actions required on your part), then you could set a rule to automatically re-route these to a specific folder. This folder can then be reviewed at the end of the day to simply ensure that you’re aware of what’s happening.
Rules can also be used to send automatic replies, perhaps notifying less important email senders of your new email routine, filtering emails from different senders into their own folders and enabling you to prioritise them automatically – or even delete emails from certain sources.

You can also proactively reduce the number of emails you receive by trying to lessen the amount you send in the first place. Think practically about who really needs to be included on your email and make sure that you’re clear and concise in what you’re asking or the information you’re conveying.
By cutting down the likelihood of a colleague needing to send a return email for clarification purposes, you’ll reduce the amount of time you need to spend administering your inbox.

6. Overly chatty co-workers preying on your attention

There’s nothing wrong with having a quick catch up with a colleague or discussing work-related topics. Talking helps us to build rapport, feel part of a team and integrate with those around us.
However, overly chatty coworkers can affect our productivity and become a nuisance. It’s estimated that chatting wastes an average of 5 days per year, per person, in the UK.

If someone in your office consistently attempts to engage you in unnecessary chat, then it can also reflect badly on you and project the impression that you’re also wasting time, some might see it as ‘it takes two to tango’!

co worker distractionIf you want to reduce the number of times a colleague stops at your desk and attempts to engage you in a chat, without causing friction or offending them, then there’s a few strategies you can employ below.

Show interest and engage some of the time, but where appropriate, politely let them know that you’re too busy to talk at that time and perhaps you could catch up at lunch time. Often, there’s nothing important that they have to tell you, so probably won’t even remember by the time you break anyway.

Explaining to your coworker that you work to tight deadlines and can’t really afford the time to chat will portray a clear message. Be careful how you put this to them, as you don’t want to cause offence, however your colleague should appreciate your situation and go back to their desk.

If there’s no other option – and as a last resort – you can speak to an overly talkative employee’s manager. If there’s a real disruption in the level of productivity as a result of someone distracting others incessantly, then raising the issue with a senior member of staff may be the only viable option.

7. Unnecessary meetings

Meetings are sometimes necessary and can be productive, however, when there’s a meeting for meeting’s sake, then productivity suffers. Arranging a meeting for multiple members of staff when it’s not required wastes time and frustrates employees.

If it’s impossible to avoid holding a meeting, then set a time limit and stick to it. Knowing that such a restriction is in place will add urgency to what’s being discussed and help to keep points concise and presentations short.
Only invite those people really needed. Even if there’s a usual group that would be invited to certain types of discussions, tailor your invite list to keep the impact on your colleague’s time to a minimum.

pointless meetingThe cause of a lot of meetings is the mismanagement of a previous gathering. When holding a meeting, set clear actions and specific deadlines, this will help to eliminate the need to hold recap or clarification follow-ups. Make sure you ask everyone involved whether or not they have any questions or are unclear about anything that was discussed. If there’s any confusion, address it in the original meeting.

Use technology to meet with colleagues from your desk, rather than having to travel to another room, floor, building or even area of the country. Collaboration tools allow communication to take place, ideas to be shared, notes to be taken and actions to be given and completed. With the tools available to us there’s usually no need to physically meet to discuss strategies and actions, we can do it whenever and from wherever we are.

If multiple meetings involving some or all of the same people need to be booked, make sure you leave a sufficient rest break between them. One of the causes of repeat and unnecessary meetings is people not paying attention or being absent.
By allowing attendees to take a break and refresh themselves (or simply providing enough time for them to get from one meeting to another), you’ll reduce the need for recaps.

If you get invited to too many meetings and you truly don’t need to be involved, then learn to say ‘no’. As long as you can justify why you’ve declined an invite, then you’re simply being diligent and aware of how important time is to you and your employer.

8. Smoke breaks/snack breaks

workplace-distractionSnacking is all too easy at work. There’s a number of causes as to why we feel the need to eat between meals which are all avoidable, these include:

  • Stay busy – one of the biggest risks when trying to avoid snacks is boredom. Make sure you’ve got a full schedule and you’ll almost certainly not even think about crisps or chocolate
  • Eat the correct food at the correct times – when you do eat, make sure to choose the right types of food. Obviously it’s got to be healthy, but make sure that you eat breakfast, lunch and dinner, and that what you eat fills you up and keeps the hunger away for as long as possible
  • Address the ‘feeders’ – have a chat with any colleagues that constantly bring in the unhealthy offerings. If there’s constantly food left out for everyone and too much of a temptation, then ask that it be left in a different location that’s less of a temptation
  • Have a word with yourself – when you feel yourself approaching a Snickers, cup cake or other sugary treat, stop and ask yourself whether you really need it and remind yourself that you’ll feel worse for it afterwards
  • Bring your own healthy snacks – instead of relying of whats available in the office or the shop next to it for a snack, bring your own. Choosing a healthy alternative and having this with you from the start of the day will help reduce how much junk food you’ll be tempted by
  • Avoid social media – social media is always full of images of lovely looking food. With the increasing trend in food photography, it’s difficult to avoid seeing very tempting chocolate cakes or cookies
  • Drink tea – unsweetened herbal tea can completely kill your desire for sweet snacks, you can even choose a tea which matches the type of flavour you’re craving! Additionally, holding a cup of tea can distract you and provide comfort when you’re tempted to resort to a snack

9. Noisy co-workers

As well as a constant distraction, a noisy office also affects our morale. A 2013 study by the University of Sydney found that a lack of sound privacy was far and away the biggest drain on employee morale:


Credit: HBR

There’s a number of ways that noise levels, or at least the distraction it causes, can be reduced in an office – these include:

  • Placing houseplants around the office can reduce noise by as much as 5 decibels, while making your working environment look nicer and cleaning the air you breathe
  • Creating dedicated quiet zones where employees can retreat to if they’re finding it hard to concentrate will help to keep productivity levels high, while reducing the frustrations some feel as a result of the constant noise around them
  • Wear headphones to block out ambient noise and replace it with music or natural sounds that help you to concentrate, focus or relax
  • Simply ask those who may be making a bit too much noise to ‘quieten down a bit’ may well be all that’s required to reduce the noise around you
  • Invest in noise-absorbing materials to use in the design of your office, such as ceiling tiles or partitions

Another option is actually increasing certain noises to cancel out those sounds that are annoying or distracting. In an article on Sourceable, it was noted:

“Sound masking – increasing background noise – is gaining momentum in office design. Keogh believes it can make conversations less likely to be heard and less bothersome.

Australian company Soundmask has a series of sound generators, equalisers and even acoustic discs that can balance out sound. Some solutions can adapt to different zones in a given space and even change frequencies in accordance with human speech.

The company was behind sound masking solutions at the AMP Financial Services head office in Docklands. AMP found that some areas were too quiet and others were too noisy.

Being an insurance company and dealing with speech privacy, it was a real concern for the organisation, so rather than using panel and tile acoustic treatments, Soundmask installed a zone distributor, allowing the client to “zone” different spaces, customizing the level of sound masking in each space and smoothing the overall sound quality.”