April 2, 2021
In my research with Zenger Folkman I’ve found that one of the characteristics that organizations value most in a leader is the ability to consistently produce good results—in short, leaders are valued in large part for how productive they are. When asked what gets in the way of greater productivity, the most frequent answer we hear is distractions.
Studies conducted decades ago concluded that managers’ jobs are characterized by short bursts of attention on different topics, often lasting only 4 to 10 minutes. Each event is followed by a sudden lurch to another totally different matter, and then on to another and another. The big danger is that each interaction ends up being largely superficial. We believe this research is outdated—the situation is now much worse.
Modern technology has compounded the number of communications bombarding every employee. We hear stories of managers who have more than 300 emails in their inbox when they arrive at the office each day. In contrast, at my first executive job in the 1960’s, I would have 7 to 10 letters in my inbox.
Are distractions a legitimate reason for lower productivity? In a word, yes. Not only is the distraction itself a cause for lower performance, but the very anticipation of a distraction causes productivity to drop.
Research on interruptions and distractions confirms that both quantity and quality of output suffer. One research team conducted an interesting experiment.
“Around 50 college students were asked to write three essays based on standard college essay prompts created by the College Board. Participants were given 12 minutes to plan and outline their essays on paper, and then were given 12 minutes to actually write their essays using a computer and keyboard. While they were working on their essays, the students were interrupted at random intervals with sets of unrelated puzzle tasks, like solving math problems or unscrambling words. Participants were instructed to complete as much of the interruption task as possible during each of the 60-second interruptions before switching back to working on their essays. These interruptions occurred during two of the three essays so that each participant completed an essay under each of the three conditions (i.e., no interruptions, interruptions during the planning phase, and interruptions during the writing phase).”
The essays were then graded by trained graders using a scale from the College Board. Both the number of words written and the accuracy of their work was assessed. Ninety-six percent of the students did worse in “interruption conditions,” receiving significantly lower ratings in both quantity and quality.
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Odysseus, the well-known character in Greek mythology (maybe better known by his Latin name Ulysses), was a classic example of controlling distractions. He wanted to hear the beautiful music of the Sirens but knew that this beguiling music led sailors to steer their ships into the rocks of the island. So Odysseus used two clever techniques. He didn’t attempt to change his behavior, wisely choosing to instead control his environment. He had his sailors plug their ears with wax, so they could not hear the Siren’s song, nor his commands or pleas to sail closer to the shore. Then he had the sailors tie him to the mast of the ship, away from the helm, so that he could not turn the wheel and cause them to crash into the rocks. As they sailed by the island on which the Sirens dwelled, Odysseus heard the beautiful music and begged the crew to steer closer so that he could hear it better, but because their ears were full of wax they could not hear his pleas. Odysseus was able to achieve his goal of hearing the Sirens while also keeping everyone safe by managing their environment and avoiding destructive temptations.
Today’s business world has several temptations. We can be lured into being controlled by them, or we can manage our environment and negate their effect. A few that we see are:
Many challenges in life demand that we develop new skills and change our mindset. Controlling your environment will take some pressure off you and allow you to reduce the distractions that can waylay your day.
( This article first appeared on Forbes.)
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