Despite all the great things about modern technology, there are days when we secretly want to throw our phones out the window. Between push notifications, texts, meeting alerts and email pings, our phones and laptops are constantly interrupting us. The problem is our brains are just not wired for constant connectivity—and it’s taking a toll on our ability to focus.
Just how bad is it?
According to a Washington Post article, the typical office worker is interrupted or switches tasks, on average, every three minutes and five seconds.1 A widely-cited 2008 University of California Irvine study found that it takes 23 minutes to get back on task after an interruption. When we consider how many times our phones disturb us during the course of a work day, it’s no wonder we are working more hours but feel less productive.
Jonathan Spira, author of “Overload! How Too Much Information Is Hazardous to Your Organization,” estimates that “interruptions and information overload eat up 28 billion wasted hours a year, at a loss of almost $1 trillion to the U.S. economy.”2
The physical and mental toll is even more compelling. Boston University’s Marshall Van Alstyne claims that “allowing yourself to be interrupted all the time, as opposed to focusing on the task and barring interruption, was roughly equivalent to pulling an all-nighter.”3 Constant interruptions cause workers to be stressed, frustrated, and feel pressure to make up for lost time.
Of all the generations, millennials and Gen Z seem to be the most vulnerable to workplace distractions. A study by Udemy for Business found that 74% of workers in these generations report being distracted at work. Of those, 46% say workplace distractions make them feel unmotivated and 41% say it stresses them out.4
Can’t we just turn our phones off?
Yes—and no. While turning off your phone or limiting push notifications certainly does help, research shows we are cognitively impaired when our cell phones are nearby—even if they are powered down.
Researchers in a study conducted by Harvard Business Review asked 800 people to complete a task designed to measure cognitive capacity. The study showed that even when participants’ phones were turned off and face down on the desk, they performed less well than those whose phones were in another room. The “mere presence of our smartphones is like the sound of our names—they are constantly calling to us, exerting a gravitational pull on our attention.”5 Wow. And, as we know, many apps and social sites stimulate the reward centers of the brain so we keep coming back for more. Is it any wonder we feel we can’t accomplish enough during the day?
What can workplaces do to help?
Clearly, workplaces have an incentive to help employees minimize distraction and lessen the emotional and physical toll of constant connectivity. As a recent Deloitte study points out, employers would do well to consider a few interventions:
- Encourage a digital detox. This article contains a step-by step approach to weaning oneself off device dependence.
- Make use of commitment devices. As we know from behavioral science, it can be powerful for individuals to publicly commit to achieving a goal. Maybe it’s a leader who gets the ball rolling by embracing a no-weekend-email policy.
- Allow employees to use an app or other technique to thwart interruptions. Thrive Global has an app that automatically shoots a note back to senders that an employee is “thriving” and will reply later. Here at WebMD Health Services it’s not uncommon to see “in the zone” signs outside cubicles so people understand when quiet is needed.
- Support (and honor) blocked out calendars. Designating “work time” on a calendar can help, but only if others respect it.
- On that note, resist the urge to over-include in meetings. Technology has made it easy to join a meeting regardless of time and place, so we tend to invite everyone. Respect coworkers’ time by limiting invites to critical attendees.
Sadly, we’ll never be able to completely disconnect from our devices. But, a little boundary-setting and maybe even breaking up with your phone for an afternoon could be just what you need. Hey, it’s a start!
- Blog: Workplace Well-Being Programs Make a Difference
- E-Book: Your Guide: The Power of Personalization