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The High Cost Of Distraction

by David Brock on October 11th, 2015
time and dynamite

No this isn’t a post on the evils of texting or reading emails while driving—though the costs of those distractions are devastating.  This is focuses on all the tools, alerts, and things that are supposed to help us, yet in fact have devastating impacts on our personal effectiveness and productivity.

We can point out endless examples—people reading their smartphones during a meeting, the person you are meeting with is a devout believer in multitasking.  And then there are the distracted, “Ugh-huh’s, that sounds fantastic,” responses to my wife as she tells me about her day while I’m looking at the latest text stream (yeah, I fight distraction as much as anyone else.)

Then there are all the technologies set up to help us.  The little pop-up in the lower right hand corner saying an email from so and so has arrived.  Or that soft two-tone alert coming from your IPhone notifying you of an “alarm.”  Or even the screen of your smart phone lighting up on your desk as new emails and messages arrive–out of the corner of your eye you are peeking, “Did something important come in?”

All these things are supposed to keep us alert (hence the name), aware, and up to date.

But at what cost?

Many years ago (actually a couple of decades if I’m really honest), when I worked at IBM, I was wandering around the research labs looking for interesting new technologies that my business unit could exploit and bring to market.  As I wandered the building, I saw all sorts of cool things–the precursor to Watson, new semiconductor technologies, new voice recognition, and the list went on.

But through the day, every half hour or so, I’d see Walt Doherty somewhere on my route.

I have to describe Walt, he was a hulking guy–I’d guess about 6’2″ or more and over two hundred pounds.  Even more startling was his completely shaved head–long before the fashion and his sparkling eyes.  Think of a supersized Seth Godin.  (I later learned Walt had a pile of PhD’s, was a wine connoisseur, and close to a scratch golfer.)

As I made the tour of the building, Walt would pop up every 20-30 minutes, smiling, eyes sparkling and say “Hi, how are things going?”

Toward the end of the day, after seeing lots of cool technologies, I saw Walt again.  Frustrated, I said, “Walt, what research do you do?”

“I study distraction,” he replied.  I couldn’t help thinking, “Well you’ve mastered it,”  but instead, I said, “Can you explain your work a little more?”

It ended up being a game changer.  Walt had been looking at what happens when people are distracted from the task they are doing.  For example, think of when you click on a link and it takes a few seconds for the screen to open.  Or you are opening a document and those few seconds it takes for the document to open.

Walt discovered, for every 1 second you are distracted, it takes 3-5 seconds to collect your thoughts, recall what you were doing before the distraction, and continue on.  Stated differently, the total time lost in a distraction is actually 4-6 times the time of the distraction itself.

From a business point of view, it was brilliant, we were able to exploit the value of fast response times in my business unit–getting people to buy more powerful computers solely, justified solely through the cost of distraction.

Fast forward to today.  If you’re sitting at your desk reading this, along the bottom of your screen, you are probably seeing alerts coming in, your Smartphone (s) is chirping at you, your Tablet is doing the same thing, if you have Twitter or another messaging app in the background, you see a constant scroll of messages.  Even seeing these in our peripheral vision distracts us, causing us to lose concentration and productivity.

But let’s start to quantify the impact that has on our daily lives.

We’re doing work on our computers.  An email arrives, out of curiosity or a desire to be responsive, we switch apps, look at the email.  Maybe we respond to it, maybe we delete it.  It only takes a minute–then we return to our task.  In reality, it’s cost us 4-6 minutes.

That’s the time it takes for us to switch to the email, handle it, switch back, then recall where we were and move forward.

Let’s say we only get 10 emails a day (stop rolling on the floor with laughter).  The adverse impact on our productivity is 40-60 minutes!

Now tally up all the other distractions, that text message, listening to the alarm that goes off on your Smartphone (even though that’s very short), seeing your IPhone screen light up and trying to read the message out of the corner of your eye.

Cumulatively, all these distractions pile up and have a devastating impact on our time!  And that’s when we’re trying to be very productive and very focused.  When we aren’t allowing the distraction to take more of our time, like clicking link after link, wandering aimlessly through the web, finally settling on Jimmy Fallon’s latest Lip Sync skit.

Look at how you spent yesterday, tally up the distractions, estimate the time, multiply by 4-6.  You’ll be shocked at the cost–it mounts up to be hours, lost every day.  Day’s lost each month, weeks lost each year.  If you calculate the value of your time, you’ll see that distraction is probably costing you $10,000’s a year!

All these things that are supposed to keep us aware, keep us informed, keep us responsive are having a devastating impact on our time.  All these things chiming, beeping, buzzing, flashing, vibrating are costing us $10,000’s.

Imagine what you could gain, by just turning those things off?

Stop letting Microsoft, Apple, Google, Salesforce help you be more productive!

Turn off the email alerts!  Turn off the messaging alerts, turn your phone and tablet so you can’t see the screen (better–put them someplace where you don’t hear the vibration).

I’m not saying stop dealing with the emails, messages, or other alerts–instead block time where you can concentrate on them (being distracted from them is a productivity hit as well.)

As an after note to sales people—when you are prospecting, you will be a distraction or interruption to your prospect.  Your interruption isn’t just a couple of minutes–it has an impact of 4-6 times that amount on their time.  Make sure you are using that time well and creating value for the total impact of that distraction.

If you’d like to read a little about Walt’s work:  The Economic Value Of Rapid Response Time

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