The One Work Problem That Plagues Us All and Clever Ways to Fix It

Does this happen to you? You’re working away when suddenly someone sends you a tweet or an email about this funny video or they send you a link to this fascination Facebook page about how to choose the sex of your baby. You think you’ll just take a minute or two to look at it and the next time you look at the clock, 25 minutes has flown by!

It’s really not your fault; there are dozens of obstacles that can get in your way every day, all of asking for just a minute of your time. That invitation to a baby shower you need to RSVP (how long can that take?) Replying to a group text about dinner plans for Friday night (that’s only a minute, right?) And that quick FB reply to your mothers funny meme, that will be quick and, omg, it just happened again!

Overworked and Busy Businessman

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Ok, the truth is that although there are things that can distract us, we do have the power to overcome these temptations, and get back to work. All it takes is a little intention, mindfulness, and practice. We’ve almost been “trained” to respond to those pop-ups and alerts, so our goal today is to unlearn that automatic response.

When we hear that little bell that notifies us that we have a new FB message, or that pop up that tells us we have an email or text message, it’s a bit like a sugar rush. A little jolt of excitement that actually does us more harm than good.

What’s the harm in a looking at a few little laughing baby videos? Because it’s much more than the minute or two you spend looking at those videos, it’s the amount of time it takes you to really recover and get your mind back on your work. The University of California, Irvine, did a study that shows that whenever workers are interrupted, whether by someone else or by that FB alert, it takes you as much as 23 minutes to get your mind back to place it was when you were interrupted.

This means that we are wasting a whole lot more time than we actually think we are. When you think to yourself “Oh, I’ll just check this FB message while I type out this memo”, you are actually signing yourself up for two different tasks because you really can’t do both at once, even though you think you are or you might think you can. Then everything suffers because you really can’t devote your full attention to either one of these things.

Here are some common problems and some ingenious ways to stop yourself from getting distracted and get back to the work at hand.


1. Too many open tabs

Having 12 or 15 open tabs on your browser is either a sign of procrastination or it’s a chronic inability to complete the task at hand. On occasion, you will need a couple tabs open to check data, for example, while working on your project, but seriously, when you find you have 12, 15, or even 20 tabs open, how many of those tabs are related to the project you are working on right now? Some say that you never need to have more than 8 tabs open at any given time. While that number is up for debate, one thing is certain, the more tabs you have open, the less efficient your computer becomes. Doesn’t matter if you are using Firefox, Safari, or Chrome, having tons of open tabs means your machine slows down. In fact, after a point, your browser will just freeze and stop working altogether.

The solution? Only keep tabs open that related to your project. If you must check FB or YouTube, then close all other tabs. That will most likely have you thinking twice before you close those work related tabs. Or try using Pocket, an application that works like bookmarks, saving a certain page until you have time to read it at a later date.


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2. Email

We spend way too much of our time at work dealing with emails. A report in the McKinsey Global Institute says that we spend as much as 28 percent of our time reading, writing, and deleting emails. So if you figure that you work about 260 days every year, that means you spend 73 of those days just dealing with email. Doesn’t that sound productive?

The problem is that our office culture has us well trained. We expect an email response within hours, or even minutes if it’s considered urgent. This sometimes means we are expected to answer emails all day long, but how can we do that and do our work as well? Aren’t emails work? You might be asking. Well, yes and no. Sometimes they are a necessary evil of our work, other times, we use them as to do lists, or we don’t use them effectively.

The solution? Stop thinking of your email as a task to complete. Emails are never finished, they just keep coming. Then rethink how you incorporate emails into your work. Instead of responding like Pavlov’s dogs to each new notification, read your emails only at certain times of the day. If you are concerned that you might miss an urgent or important email, schedule a calendar reminder, or set your phone to remind you to check your email perhaps every 30 minutes or at the top of every hour. (10am, 11am, and so on) Turn off those alert tones and pop-up windows that notify you of every email. You might also consider unsubscribing from some newsletters or sending those emails from Woot to your private email address, rather than the one you use for work.


3. Instant messaging

Instant messaging, such as Gchat, or AIM, force you to multitask, something we have already discussed. Trying to do this kind of multitasking might cause you to mistype to the wrong person, so instead of telling your kid to clean out the garage, you might accidentally type that into the email you just sent your boss!

Like email, it might be easier to only use IM during certain hours of the day. If you really need to use it, let people know you are going to be available for chat everyday between 3 and 5pm, for example.


4. Smart phones

You know this scenario: the minute you start getting into your work project, your phone lights up with a text. Before you can read it, your phone dings to tell you that you have 2 missed calls from your husband (surely he wouldn’t call unless it was important, right?) And let’s not forget those two email icons that are sitting in the corner, waiting for your attention. Before you know it, its 11AM and you haven’t done a thing but look at that phone all morning.

The solution? It’s an easy one, but the hardest thing you will ever have to do. Turn it off. Or put it in airplane mode. If you are worried about missing something important, use the same protocol that you use for emails, check it every 30 minutes or the top of every hour. This will be a difficult habit to break, but you can do it. Remember life before cell phones?


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5. Everything else

Sometimes, it’s not the emails or IM’s or cell phones, its other distractions. Your co-worker who dropped by to show you pictures of his newborn, your son who has failed math for the second semester, your mother who lives alone now and is having fainting spells. There are a million other things in life that can cause our train of thought to jump the track, so to speak.

The solution? Sometimes, all we need are a few deep breaths to release some stress and regain our concentration. If you still find you simply can’t concentrate on anything, this is sometimes a sign that your brain is overloaded and needs a break. Take 5 minutes, close your eyes, and imagine yourself on a beautiful beach, lying in the sun. Or take a walk around the block. Another good technique is to allow yourself 5 minutes every hour to think about whatever it is that’s bothering you, then to get back to work. 5 minutes to call your mother, look up a tutor for your son, whatever it is. Allow yourself 5 minutes to deal with the problem, and then return to your work. If you don’t finish in 5 minutes, that’s ok, you have 5 more minutes next hour to deal with it. Read more about foods to relieve stress.