Day #38: Focus and Distraction

23 minutes

Average time it takes to get back to performing a task following interruption.


Proportion of all interrupted work we need to resume on the same day. 

3 minutes and 5 seconds

Average time focused on a workplace activity before switching.

Around 50%

Estimation of interruptions where we interrupt ourselves.  

Let’s use these findings in a story and see if it looks familiar. 

Let's join this day at 10:30am as you get to work on a document you need to complete. There is about 30 minutes of work left on it, you assume.

3 minutes into the task you switch to check your email.

After 23 minutes in your email, you switch back to a work task.

Perhaps it’s the report, but let’s acknowledge that many of us juggle multiple tasks across a day.

So, this time you move on to that powerpoint presentation you need to complete by the end of the day.

A full 3 minutes of powerpoint work later and you switch over to LinkedIn to have a read of recent posts by people you are following.

Another 23 minutes passes and you switch back to that report that you really must get finished because there really isn’t that much left to do to strike it off your to-do list.

Whereas you started it at 10am with the assumption it would take you 30 minutes, you now check your watch and find that you have barely done anything on the report and the time is 11:22.

You still think there is about 30 minutes of work on the report because you only made a tiny dent in the task when you started it at 10am. You can’t believe that nearly an hour has passed and you don’t seem to have gotten anywhere.

You press on. Let’s be generous this time. You engage in your report with focus three times that of the average. A triple focus is rare - well done! After 9 minutes working on your report, it’s 11:31 and you have to head off to a meeting. In fact, you’re a minute late already.

You rush into the meeting. Your boss checks in on how you’re going with the report. You say that you expect to have it finished soon and will get back to it after the meeting. The meeting goes at record speed and you are back at your desk at 12:10.

Someone had asked you in the meeting for the slides for the presentation. You mentioned that they are not finished yet, but you can send them over for feedback while you finish the report. Back at your desk at 12:10 you email the powerpoint presentation, and stay in email land for 23 minutes before getting back to your report.

It’s now 12:33 and you can’t believe over two hours have passed since you set out to finish the report. Where is the time going? You open the report to get cracking, and your best mate at work comes over and says he’s going to lunch if you want to join him.

You know you do, and you also know you have the report to finish. You mention the report, and he says “everyone needs lunch though and you deserve a break”. You don’t exactly believe him that you deserve a break, but you do need lunch. You convince yourself that you will be able to focus and finish the report uninterrupted when you have nourished yourself and had a break with your buddy. So, off you go to lunch.

You walk to the local sushi place, only 3 minutes away. After packing up your things and walking there it’s now 12:40. Lunch and banter takes you through to 1:10. Only a 30 minute lunch break, you’re busy after all.

On your 3 minute walk back to the office, you stop to grab a coffee on the go. You text people back at the office to see if they too want a coffee - so thoughtful - and then put in the order for 4 coffees and a hot chocolate.

The wait was short, only 3 minutes, so you head back to the office and spend 4 minutes handing out the hot drinks and exchanging a few words. It’s now 1:20 and you know you can polish off that report before your 2pm meeting. That is giving you a significant buffer of time, but you hope to wrap up the writing early so you can prepare for the meeting.

You open your email and notice that your colleague worked on the presentation while you were at lunch. You decide to quickly review the feedback - you can’t help yourself. Besides, if you take a look now you can ponder the feedback and suggestions while you finish your report, you think.

After 3 minutes looking at the feedback, you have an idea that you want to quickly insert into the report. You spend 3 minutes on your idea. Now to find a good image for the slide that reflects your brilliant idea. After 23 minutes scrolling through Google images, it’s now 1:53pm. You park the presentation for now as you realise that you really need to spend a few minutes preparing for your 2pm meeting.

You still have the report to finish after the meeting and can’t believe that all your time got sucked up after lunch without you even touching the report again. What is going on today! Gheez i’m busy but I can’t seem to get anything done.

Your 2pm meeting goes for the common 1 hour. You walk away from that at 3pm, with 2 new tasks to complete as a result of the meeting.

You head into your to-do list app to record the tasks, then go to your diary to allocate time to complete those tasks. You think you will finish your report by 3:20pm, get back to the presentation and finish that by 4pm, which will give you 1.5 hours for the 2 new tasks that feel really urgent after your meeting.

After time in to-do list and calendar land, you realise it’s 3:10 so feel rushed to finish off that report to keep to your schedule so you can complete your presentation and get to those new tasks before the end of the day…

Ok, let's pause there. I could go on but I think you get the gist.

Let's recognise that science indicates we have tiny episodes of attentional focus stitched across the day with extended periods of distraction and interruption.

Without developing the skills of our attention, our potential for high-performance will be compromised.