Three minutes and five seconds.
That’s how much time, on average, a worker spends on a single task before getting sidetracked—by a phone call, chatty coworker or some other office distraction—according to research from Gloria Mark, professor at the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences at the University of California, Irvine. And then it can take a full 23 minutes for that worker to get back on track.
Stats like that make you wonder how you can ever check everything off your to-do list.
“With pop-ups constantly notifying us of emails, social media touts and upcoming meetings, our focus is easily challenged,” confirms Mitzi Weinman, author of “It’s About Time! Transforming Chaos into Calm, A to Z.” But the consequences of distractedness at work are serious. “Poor productivity can mean missed deadlines, disappointed clients and increased levels of stress.”
While it’s nearly impossible to eliminate every office time-suck, we can help you identify and minimize the impact of these five common productivity killers.
1. Email Overload
According to Peggy Duncan, productivity pro and author of “Put Time Management to Work and the Live the Life You Want,” email eats up a third of the work day—and can easily become the greatest time-suck of all.
“The bigger your organization, the bigger the problem,” she says. “A lot of it is internal email because people reply all, going back and forth, when you should pick up a phone or have a quick meeting.”
One solution? Create little hacks to decrease your time spent crafting or responding to messages. For example, Duncan has a “Send a Lot” folder, containing email drafts with documents she references often, like her bio and Webinar notes, already attached. That way, she doesn’t waste time searching through her inbox every time she needs them.
Another idea: If you’re working on deadline, opt out of email entirely—for awhile. Rather than pausing to reply whenever you receive a new message, limit yourself to checking once an hour.
2. Busy Work
Maybe your meeting note-taking skills have your coworkers running to you to answer follow-up questions everyone should know. Or perhaps your tech know-how has landed you the role of de-facto IT guy. Sometimes, we own busy work because we enjoy it; other times, it’s dumped on us. In either case, it’s important to wipe these tasks off your list whenever possible, in order to focus on more mission-critical work.
“Some people feel like no one can do it like them, but a lot of times, that comes from a lack of good processes and procedures,” Duncan says. “How do you expect [others you manage] to grow if you don’t delegate? Spend your time doing things they can’t do.”
When the busy work comes down from on high? Ask: “What is the priority and deadline, given my other responsibilities?” It may not get you off the hook, but at least it lets your boss know what else is on your plate, so he can decide what’s worth your time.
3. Social Media
Don’t you love people who constantly complain about being “so busy,” yet every time you swing by their desk, they’re chuckling at the latest “Bye Felicia” meme?
Unless your job is managing social media, save the posts for lunchtime or after hours. Not only is it easy to get sucked in and ignore your work, but wasting time on these sites doesn’t exactly show your boss and coworkers that you’re serious about your job.
There is one exception to this rule—so long as you’re careful not to fall down the rabbit hole. “If you use social media for business, be strategic,” says Weinman, who’s also the founder of www.timefinder.net, a site that delivers solutions on improving productivity, effectiveness and focus. “For example, if using LinkedIn to post articles or make connections is important to your work, then plan out what you will post, when and how much time you will spend.”
4. Coworker Drop-ins
Ah, the drop-in. Interruptions from officemates—both for social and business reasons—can throw you off your concentration game in no time and make it especially difficult to get back on task. Duncan used to signal to her former coworkers that she was too busy to chat by simply avoiding eye contact or “rearranging the furniture” so no one could see her.
Granted, this strategy might be tough to enact if you work in an open environment—in which case, Weinman suggests holding unofficial “office hours.” If someone stops by, politely explain that you’re in the middle of a project and ask to meet again at a specific time later on.
If that doesn’t work, Weinman suggests asking yourself if you might be part of the problem—and looking for solutions, if so. “Are [your employees] not being given enough information? What can you do differently to lessen the number of interruptions?” she says.
5. Pointless Meetings
You know that regularly scheduled Thursday team meeting where hardly anything gets accomplished? Unless a meeting has a purpose and clear action items on the agenda, it’s distracting you from getting real work done. “It’s important that everyone understand what they need to do and the deadline to follow up,” Weinman adds.
If pointless meetings are clogging up your calendar, ask team members if any can be combined to accomplish the same goals. If that doesn’t work, next time you’re invited to one, ask the organizer to send you the agenda and information about your role. If your time would be better spent elsewhere, see if another colleague can attend. “It’s a chance for the other person to feel like they are valued and to leverage your time well,” Weinman says.
Just make sure you prep your colleague and alert the meeting coordinator that you’ll be sending a great contributor in your place.