by Chuck Martin

Distractions at Work

May 31, 20073 mins
CareersPersonal Software

Distractions and interruptions are legion, but the worst culprits are e-mail and the crisis du jour.

Businesspeople understandably are having a tough time avoiding the many distractions at work. They deal with phone calls, unexpected meetings, unorganized workspaces, changing priorities and annoying cell phones. But senior executives and managers say the biggest distractions are e-mail and the crisis of the day.

To avoid distractions at work, workers are getting to work early, trying to focus and closing their doors more, based on a global survey of executives and managers we conducted.

And the e-mail overload can come from both outside the organization from customers or from inside, such as from colleagues or superiors. “Email is a big distraction,” said one survey respondent. “Checking e-mails and voicemails frequently is a major disruption to planning time. It is often difficult to gauge which customers to respond to quickly and which to wait on.”

“I refuse to read e-mails that I am cc’d on,” said another. “There are too many e-mails. My staff knows that if it is important, they should either call or come see me.”

Issues around meetings also cause distractions to almost a third of business leaders. “Without a doubt, it is senior executives who feel that they must prove their involvement by requiring unnecessary meetings and updates on every aspect of a project,” said one manager. “Communication with a project sponsor is important, but updates to a half dozen uninvolved execs results in considerable wasteful and redundant activity.”

Said another: “The biggest distractions are internal meetings and doorway/water cooler conversations about organizational issues.”

The constant connectivity that electronic communications allows can have two sides. By allowing everyone to stay in touch with anyone else, the technology can increase the speed of business. “Instant messages have really changed how we work these days,” said one survey respondent. “Issues and questions can be resolved very fast; however, the time it takes out of your day is amazing.”

On the other hand, it can easily create annoyances when the communication interferes with other activity. “It’s the ‘crackberries’ that are the real distraction,” said another manager. “You try to conduct a meeting and the most senior company executives are in that meeting responding to their Blackberry messages. These are two divergent activities (listening and typing) and doing one at the expense of the other shows a decided lack of respect to the presenter.”

“The ‘crackberry’ addiction has gotten out of hand,” said another. “It’s worse than e-mail or instant messaging because you don’t have to be at your desk.”

The problem with so many distractions at work is that the workday gets extended, as businesspeople come in early and stay late just to avoid the distractions.

Coupled with constant availability due to always-on electronic connectivity, the real issue is the potential loss of time to think.

Chuck Martin is a best-selling business author whose latest book, SMARTS (Are We Hardwired for Success?) (AMACOM/American Management Association), was recently published. He lectures around the world and can be reached at