When you get distracted at work, you lose valuable focus. A researcher at the University of California, Irvine, who studied this problem told Fast Company that workers who are interrupted by phone calls and emails need an average of about 23 minutes to get back on task and end up feeling more stress and frustration than their peers.
Sometimes, interruptions that distract you are coming from unreasonable bosses or chatty co-workers checking in. But often, these distractions come from mindless habits that are sabotaging your productivity ― and that you instinctively repeat.
The first step to breaking a habit is identifying it. Here are some of the most common mindless habits to watch out for:
1. You constantly check your personal phone when there is a lull.
“So many of my clients are guilty of sitting down at their desks and having their [personal] phone right next to them,” said time management coach Anna Dearmon Kornick. “And if a webpage is taking too long to load or they have a few seconds where they are just still, they have this compulsion to just reach for their phone and go into this almost zombie autopilot mode where you tap-tap over to those apps you use the most. For me, it’s always Instagram. And that can end up becoming a five-, seven-, 10-minute block of wasted time.”
Instead of constantly losing time to social media rabbit holes, Kornick recommends you schedule “scroll time” in your day.
“When you know that you have your little guilty pleasure phone indulgence scheduled, it makes you less likely to pick up your phone randomly in the middle of a project,” she said.
2. You do unrelated tasks that will “only take a second.”
One second you’re diligently chipping away at a task, and the next you find yourself online shopping, writing down a grocery list, calling for a dinner reservation and forgetting whatever you were supposed to be doing.
“We have this mindless habit of doing whatever it is that pops up in our head, because we don’t want to forget it,” Kornick said. “We tell ourselves it will just take a second, but then one thing leads to the next.”
Kornick recommends creating a “shiny thing list” of off-work tasks to keep your chunks of work time uninterrupted and to figure out what you can delegate, defer or handle later.
Career coach Anyelis Cordero noted juggling multiple work and home demands is a common energy-draining problem people face while working remotely during the pandemic. That’s why she recommends working in distraction-free intervals.
“I get more done in 90-minute focused work sprints than in three hours of mindless multi-tasking,” she said.
3. You open too many tabs on your browser.
If you are guilty of hoarding tabs until your web browser is a cluttered mess, here is your warning: Each browser tab can represent one more pull at our attention.
Adam Stiles, who invented browser tabs, previously explained to HuffPost that some of us cannot handle the freedom of unlimited tabs: “The invention gives people freedom. Perhaps it gives some people too much freedom.”
If you find 20 open tabs stressful and distracting, use tab organizers like One Tab that turn all of your tabs into a list, or background managers like Tab Auto Close and Tab Wrangler that automatically close tabs after too much inactivity.
4. You impulsively check Slack and other work chat platforms.
Checking your work chats throughout the day is normal, but if you find yourself compulsively refreshing or checking your chats and immediately addressing every message that comes your way, you may be stuck in a common mindless habit.
“Similar to text messaging, an impulse develops to view incoming updates, and that repeated habit can interrupt focus big-time, as well as cause scatterbrain,” said life coach Shanita Liu.
When you make a habit out of responding immediately to notifications and work Slacks, it can also send a message that you are someone who will drop everything to handle someone else’s request or emergencies, creating more work for yourself.
It sets “a precedent to team members that you will reply immediately,” Liu said, “which might suggest that chat is a better way to address non-urgent matters, as well as indicate that they can bypass using email to reach you quicker by chat.“
To break this habit, “set boundaries with teammates so that they know when your focus cannot be interrupted,” Liu said. If your company uses Slack, try manually updating your status to “away.” If your co-workers have access to your calendar, block your calendar with “non-interruption” times, so they know you should not be contacted, Liu suggested.
5. You start solving problems right away, before determining if they’re actually your problems to solve.
Tanya Menon, a management professor at Ohio State University who researches work time-wasters, said that people who see themselves as experts can impulsively dive into being problem-solvers who make decisions based on what they know, which stops them from taking a step back to first check if addressing the problem is the best use of their time and resources.
Menon said that people who see themselves as experts may “want the answer quick,” but in doing so, they narrow down the possibilities of how they can approach the problem.
To be a better problem-finder, don’t look for solutions right away. First, ask yourself if solving it is your role, and welcome questions. Menon said an exercise she gives students involves asking them to brainstorm only questions about a problem, so they are “engaged in the process of finding the problem” instead of jumping to find answers.
6. You assume you are right.
Norma Reyes, a career coach who works with women to help them gain clarity on their next career moves, said one mindless habit she sees professionals repeat is when they believe they have mastered a part of their jobs and get stuck in a “fixed mindset” in which they become more resistant to change at work and use up their time and energy to fight it.
“This can be maybe just nitpicking at the changes, maybe even rallying people around the changes, versus seeing that the change is necessary for a different reason,” Reyes said.
7. You schedule unnecessary meetings.
Forty-seven percent of workers surveyed by Salary.com in 2012 said “too many meetings” was their top workplace distraction. If you have a voice in how your company’s meetings are handled, question why you are having them and solicit regular feedback from attendees about length and usefulness.
As meetings researcher Steven G. Rogelberg previously told HuffPost, “One of the things that I advocate is that a leader can think about their agenda not necessarily as topics, but as questions to be answered.”
When meetings are mainly for distributing information, he suggests using other forms of communication.