7 tips for ignoring office distractions and getting down to business

According to The Energy Project, a consulting firm that helps companies be more energized and productive.

The Energy Project helps clients become more productive and focused. iStock

Tony Schwartz, CEO of consulting firm The Energy Project, struck a chord with the public when he recently wrote an op-ed for The New York Times about being addicted to distraction.

The piece, which describes a realization Schwartz had of being so addicted to the Internet that he could no longer focus on reading a book, was the most emailed article on the Times site for over 24 hours.

Why? Because as Schwartz points out, if addiction means, “the relentless pull to a substance or activity that becomes so compulsive it ultimately interferes with everyday life,’’ then by definition, nearly everyone you know is addicted to the Internet.

This addiction means that a substantial portion of the workforce spends our days in a relentless cycle of divided attention, our thoughts as fragmented as the numerous tabs we keep open on our computer browser. Fortunately, like any other addiction, there are ways to fight the Internet’s riptide effect on consciousness, and positive results can lead to improved focus, energy, and productivity.

Distraction at work has been one of the primary problems Schwartz’s consulting firm has helped its clients – mostly large companies, but also coaches and individuals – tackle over the past few years, so we spoke with Dana Asher, the senior vice president of organizational transformation at The Energy Project, to get some tips for those trying to turn over a new leaf.

Here’s what Asher recommended:

1. Have awareness. The first step to curbing your addiction to distraction is recognizing that it exists. Once you’ve located the main source of your energy drain, be it texting on your phone or compulsively checking your email, Asher said you can begin making steps toward fixing the problem.


She often begins engagements with clients by having them take stock of how they currently are managing energy, having them rate their agreement to statements like, “I don’t spend enough time with my family.’’ This calls attention to the gaps between how people want to live, and how they’re actually living.

2. Prioritize your most important work. Asher recommends that employees focus on their most important tasks at the beginning of the workday, so that there’s room for much-needed breaks later. This also gives workers a sense of accomplishment that might help lessen the impulse to multi-task throughout the rest of the day. Which brings us to…

3. Never multi-task. “The quality of your work greatly diminishes when you try and do more than one thing at a time,’’ Asher said, adding that multi-tasking also generally means you’ll spend more time overall on each task.

It may be hard to disconnect from your email for the hour or so you need to accomplish one thing, but studies show that not only is multi-tasking ineffective, it’s also a myth. Instead of doing multiple things simultaneously, scientists say you’re really just switching your attention from task to task very quickly. Hence, the time-suck.

4. Create an “energy ritual.’’ An energy ritual means engaging in a habit at the same time and place everyday that improves your energy levels and increases your focus, Asher said, and is one of the most important factors in successfully breaking an addiction.

One example would be a commitment to disconnecting from your phone or the Internet for a block of time each evening before you go to bed.


“Get into a habit loop, so that if you don’t do that ritual, you feel like something is missing,’’ Asher said, comparing it to brushing your teeth each morning. “After awhile, you won’t have to make excuses not to do it because you won’t feel right without it.’’

5. Work in sprints. Research shows that employees are most productive for 90-minute periods of time. Beyond that, our attention span begins to wane and our bodies become restless. That’s why we should aim to get work done in sprints, Asher said.

“For companies that have two hour meetings or longer, if you were a fly on the wall, you’d see attentions begin to flag,’’ Asher said. “The quality of the conversation will dip. People will get more ornery. We typically override these feelings by going to get another cup of coffee and pushing through, but really, everybody would be better served by everyone taking a break to physically renew themselves then coming back. Your energy levels will be higher in quantity and quality.’’

6. Designate a buddy. Enlist the help of someone like a co-worker, friend, or loved one to hold you accountable for your new energy-increasing habits.

“Maybe ask a colleague that sits near you to check on you and ask if you had your “Internet-free’’ minutes for the day,’’ Asher said. “Then offer to hold her accountable for something she’s trying to accomplish.’’

If you’re really feeling ambitious, Asher said you could try and influence your entire team to engage in energy rituals, like only checking email a few times per day, or agreeing that it’s OK not to respond immediately to one another’s messages.


7. Monitor success; make adjustments. Tony Schwartz mentioned in his Times op-ed that his experiment with disengaging from the Internet required many tweaks along the way. Employees should feel comfortable doing the same.

“Take stock of your ritual and see how it’s working,’’ Asher said. “Maybe you chose your Internet-free time in the morning when you’re normally drinking coffee and checking the news, and that time would work better in the afternoon at lunch or something. Always be monitoring the success of your experiments and make small adjustments over time.’’

The Internet probably isn’t going anywhere, so it’s unrealistic to expect a future where you’ll be entirely disconnected. But that doesn’t mean you can’t find a way to control your engagement with it, and find a higher quality of work-life balance in the process.

“In this day and age, we’ve lost our boundaries and endpoints,’’ Asher explained, as employees, and in other areas of life. “We should reduce the gray area. If I’m helping my kids with homework, but I’m also on my phone, I’m probably not doing the highest quality of work as a parent, and I’m certainly not getting maximum enjoyment from spending time with my child. It looks like downtime, but it’s actually not.’’

25 jobs with the best work-life balance, according to Glassdoor:

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