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Are Digital Distractions Harming Labour Productivity? Maybe Not As Much As You Think

by Craig Roth  |  January 28, 2019  |  Comments Off on Are Digital Distractions Harming Labour Productivity? Maybe Not As Much As You Think

An article in The Economist on “Are digital distractions harming labour productivity ?” contains some fallacies that should be considered when mounting the digital distraction high horse. It’s been a while since I mounted my own “information overload realist” high horse, but I still have some of the saddle sores. I rode it quite a bit from 2007 through 2012 when I presented my work on “Enterprise Attention Management” at Symposium. Let’s see if it still gallops …

Interruptions and distractions are the same

If you read the article (which I do recommend) it uses “interruption” and “distraction” interchangeably. But there are good interruptions and bad interruptions. The bad ones are distractions. Not distinguishing between them often leads to leaps of logic that result in throwing the baby out with the bathwater (like eliminating instant messaging and both the good and bad it can do). The difficulty comes in classifying them. When a person or task interrupts you at work it may be a distraction to you, but important to that person. Ultimately it is the organization-wide point of view that should prevail.

Conducting tasks while receiving e-mails and phone calls reduces a worker’s IQ by about ten points relative to working in uninterrupted quiet

That’s from an old study that I think missed the point. They made all interruptions the bad kind (distractions). I’ll tell you how to throw that experiment – have the people interrupting be really smart and calling with the answers! “Someone just told me the answer to the train question is 20 mph. Now if you figure out #3 give me a call.” In real life, people aren’t always interrupting just to ruin your concentration – they are often calling about something of importance to you. Granted, not often enough for my taste, but still it’s nowhere near 0%.

“By one estimate, it takes nearly half an hour to recover focus fully for the task at hand after an interruption. “

I’ll guess they’re talking about the Gloria Mark study. It’s a fair study (although it needs replication), but it is also fair to discuss the interruptability of tasks due to their underlying nature (don’t interrupt my surgeon, but I’d like that hotel front desk person to pick up the phone). Maybe that is why, as the article says, “Performance across industries does not fit very well with the idea that distraction is the main cause of weak productivity.” Also consider the processes and tasks to support interruptions, such as “placeholding” in documents by quickly inserting a marker for your place so it’s quicker to resume.

Let’s consider a work context, setting non-work-related interruptions aside for the moment (although there’s also a case to be made for taking breaks). Emails, IMs, and other “interruptions” are now part of your job; not the things that keep you from doing your job. Digital dexterity requires being responsive, adaptable, and connected.

Sure, there are lots of bad interruptions and some office etiquette can always be improved. But putting up an attention shield isn’t going to cut it. Learn how you can make instinctive, reflexive use of placeholding techniques to quickly save your mental state and place when shifting tasks to reduce recovery time and errors. Learn to use the features of your software to turn off distracting message alerts, set presence indicators, and guide others on how and when to best reach you. And lower your expectations a bit on how quiet your work day is going to be.


Your goal should be to be the best worker you can be in 2018, not 1988. The interruptions are only going to become more frequent. Unless you get a smart robot, but that’s another story.

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Category: attention-management  information-work  

Craig Roth
Research VP, Tech and Service Providers
7 years at Gartner
28 years IT industry

Craig Roth is a Research Vice President focused on cloud office suites, collaboration tools, content management, and how they are being impacted by digital workplace and digital business trends...Read Full Bio

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