The bright, shiny future of meetings in augmented reality, AI assistants, smart workspaces built on the internet of things, and other Jetsonian office technologies fast approaches—and American workers can’t wait for them to improve productivity. A year ago, Stowe Boyd presented research here on Gigaom that found significant optimism about the potential for technology to make work easier and more collaborative.(1) Unsurprisingly, the research found this positivity strongest among Millennials.(2)
However, that same research found that nearly half of Millennials believe the biggest time waster at work is glitchy or broken technology. Millennial frustration with current technology might explain their simultaneous wide-eyed excitement about cool, acronymed stuff like VR, AI, and IoT. This is at odds with the overall population, which perceives wasteful meetings and excessive email as the biggest enemy of efficiency.(3)
The problem is, both diagnoses are wrong. Research shows that the most significant barrier to productivity, by far, is the good, old-fashioned problem of getting distracted. It’s not that distractions exist—it’s that we succumb to them.
Put another way: poor tech and erupting inboxes don’t waste our time—we do. We have lost our ability to choose where we spend our attention.
In one survey, 87% of employees admitted to reading political social media posts at work.(4) Other research shows that 60% of online purchases occur between 9am and 5pm and that 70% of U.S. porn viewing also happens during working hours (“working” from home?).(5) And if none of that convinces you, perhaps this will: Facebook’s busiest hours are 1-3pm—right in the middle of the workday.
To be clear, this isn’t just a Millennial problem. The 2016 Nielson Social Media Report reveals that Gen Xers use social media 6 hours, 58 minutes per week—10% more than Millennials.(6) Overall media consumption tells the same story: Gen Xers clock in at 31 hours and 40 minutes per week, nearly 20% more than Millennials.
And if there weren’t enough, each instance of distraction comes at a significant cost. An experiment in Great Britain showed that people who tried to juggle work with e-mails and texts lost an average of 10 IQ points, the same loss as working after a sleepless night.(7) And this affects essentially every office worker, every day.
What’s to be done, then? Fortunately, if you’ve read this far, you’ve already done the most important thing: understand that the true problem doesn’t lie anywhere but in our own lack of focus.
Regaining focus—becoming focus-wise, as I like to call it—doesn’t require a rejection of technology, however. Becoming focus-wise only requires we reconfigure our tech usage habits.
For instance, instead of expecting ourselves (and our employees) to be 100% available throughout the day to emails, chats, and walk-bys, set time aside in “focus vaults” where you are completely unreachable to the outside world for a set period of time. When you emerge, you can have complete freedom to check emails and Facebook, batching those communications so you don’t lose IQ points switching to and from them during the actual work.
Another example is how we use the tech itself. For instance, if you know you can’t resist checking the screen when your phone dings—turn off the sound. Or disable your computer’s internet connection for a period of time. Even something as simple as making your application window full-screen encourages your brain to focus on the single task.
Normalizing simple, focus-wise habits like these throughout your enterprise can reap huge rewards in workplace productivity. As technology starts to fill our offices with artificially intelligent robots, virtual work spaces, and self-configuring environments, you can be confident that you will use the technology to accomplish your goals—rather than letting the technology use you.
About the Author
Curt Steinhorst is on a mission to rescue us from our distracted selves. Having spent years studying the impact of tech on human behavior, Curt founded Focuswise, a consultancy that equips organizations to overcome the distinct challenges of the constantly-connected workplace. He is a leading voice on strategic communication, speaking more than 75 times a year to everyone from global leadership associations and nonprofits to Fortune 100 companies.
Curt is the author of the book Can I Have Your Attention? Inspiring Better Work Habits, Focusing Your Team, and Getting Stuff Done in the Constantly Connected Workplace (John Wiley & Sons, October 2017).
1. Boyd, Stowe. “Millennials and the Workplace,” Gigaom.com. Oct 26, 2016. https://research.gigaom.com/2016/10/26/millennials-and-the-workplace-2/.
2. Dell & Intel Future-Ready Workforce Study U.S. Report. July 15, 2016. http://www.workforcetransformation.com/workforcestudy/us/.
3. Workfront 2016-2017 US State of Enterprise Work Report. Sept 9, 2016. https://resources.workfront.com/workfront-awareness/2016-state-of-enterprise-work-report-u-s-edition.
4. Kris Duggan, “Feeling Distracted by Politics? 29% of Employees Are Less Productive after U.S. Election,” BetterWorks, February 7, 2017, https://blog.betterworks.com/feeling-distracted-politics-29-employees-less-productive-u-s-election.
5. Juline E. Mills, Bo Hu, Srikanth Beldona, and Joan Clay, “Cyberslacking! A Wired-Workplace Liability Issue,” The Cornell Hotel and Restaurant Administration Quarterly, 42, no. 5 (2001): 34–47, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0010880401800562.
6. Sean Casey, “2016 Nielsen Social Media Report,” Nielsen, January 17, 2017, 6, http://www.nielsen.com/content/dam/corporate/us/en/reports-downloads/2017-reports/2016-nielsen-social-media-report.pdf.
7. “Emails ‘Hurt More than Pot,’” CNN.com, April 22, 2005, http://www.cnn.com/2005/WORLD/europe/04/22/text.iq