The Interruption Industry

Productivity Killers and Distractions in the Workplace

There are two types of people in the world, those that finish things and…

I’m sorry, I just got a text message, where were we?

Getting people to arrive to work is not a major concern for most businesses these days. More troubling is the amount of tangible production that actually gets completed during the average work day.

We all have witnessed that many working individuals sometimes become inundated by a myriad of external distractions. Ceaseless cascades of email, text messages, social media, unproductive meetings and co-worker conversations are just the tip of the iceberg that can obstruct our path to completion – if we allow it.

Completion of tasks, the first litmus test of production, is becoming ever more challenging to achieve as the profusion of personal and digital distractions in our lives continue to multiply.

L. Ron Hubbard points out in an article titled Ethics And Admin—Slow Admin:

“The secret of any executive success is the ability to Complete Cycles of Action* Quickly.”

(*Definition: ‘Cycle of Action’: the sequence that an activity goes through wherein the action is started, continued for as long as is required, and then completed as planned.)

Everyone has heard that “time is money”. But for the sake of productivity a more appropriate saying might be, “completed cycles of action are money”.

Being able to focus on your job undistracted determines the accuracy, quality and volume of your work.

According to a study by Gloria Mark, a leader in ‘interruption science’ (the very existence of which tells you the extent of this problem), it takes just seconds to be torn away from a task, but takes significantly longer to regain one’s focus. Her analysis of today’s average office worker found, “each employee spent only 11 minutes on any given project before being interrupted” and that it took, “on average, 25 minutes to return to their initial task.” With data like that it becomes clear where everyone’s time, and the company’s money, is being lost.

In another article titled Completion of Cycles, Mr. Hubbard states,

“To completely wreck an area all one has to do is interrupt all cycles begun. Soon everything is half apart and nothing works.”

Confirming that concept, a FastCompany magazine article from earlier this year showed that interruptions are shorting the U.S. economy of approximately $588 billion of productivity per year. Those funds were spent on the skilled labor hours lost due to distraction and disengagement—investments in human capital with zero benefit to the affected corporations.

It is widely acknowledged that computers were brought to every desk to increase productivity. That was the value proposition: more work accomplished with less labor and all brought to you by technology.

But who could have foreseen how the computer would become a literal Trojan horse, filled with distractions that would pour out into our lives in the form of “notifications”.

A recent Wall Street Journal article re-affirms what we are witnessing: “Distraction at the office is hardly new, but as computer screens multiply…companies say the problem is worsening and is affecting business.”

As a comparison of how technological notifications have rapidly multiplied in their demands for our attention:

Just 20 years ago we had a simple desk phone, postal mail, and maybe you sat within earshot of a fax machine. Fast-forward to today and we have countless new additions to our desktop distraction landscape including email, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, instant messaging services, and 24/7 news updates just to name a few – all of which stream into our consciousness from the bright light of the computer monitor that we’re using in an attempt to get something done.
(Case in point, the writing of this article was interrupted by a notification from my own machine with a demand that I stop what I’m doing to complete a “critical software update”).

Beyond our desktop computers there is also the specter of our mobile devices – but there isn’t enough room in this article to address how those portable distraction factories keep us from our work – seemingly every waking moment.

What is increasingly happening in the average work environment goes completely contrary to the advice offered to executives by Mr. Hubbard:

“Only the most violent emergency should pull anyone off a cycle of action and he should be returned to it when the emergency is handled.”

If it were just technology we had to contend with, that would be a significant enough challenge. But it’s not the whole story because few of us work alone. Most don’t have the luxury of closing a door to alleviate the noise and accessibility to other human sources of distraction. Questions from colleagues, both business and personal, are hard to ignore especially in today’s modern office environments.

As Rachel Silverman put it in the aforementioned WSJ piece, “While some firms make noises about workers wasting time on the Web, companies are realizing the problem is partly their own fault. Even though digital technology has led to significant productivity increases, the modern workday seems custom-built to destroy individual focus. Open-plan offices and an emphasis on collaborative work leave workers with little insulation from colleagues’ chatter.”

Employees will also tell you that they cannot defend themselves against any number of distractions – by authority. These sometimes come from overloaded executives who have the seniority to call upon them for issues not related to the matter at hand and sometimes come masked as task delegation.

L. Ron Hubbard warns of that type of executive in the aforementioned article entitled Ethics And Admin—Slow Admin,

“Referral is irresponsibility. Executives who refer to others to make a decision aren’t executives. They are irresponsible or afraid of responsibility.”

So whether you’re a leader watching the bottom line, a shareholder minding an investment or an employee who wants to keep a job, the moral of this story is that the impact of lost capital and productivity on your company due to work interruptions cannot be ignored.

In the next article titled “How to Overcome Productivity Killers in the Workplace” we’ll address some fundamentals to help offset those workplace interruptions and provide you with some tips to increase your productivity.




“Human Factors and Ergonomics Society : Say “No” to Interruptions, “Yes” to Better Work.” . N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Aug. 2015.
Thompson, Clive. “Meet the Life Hackers.” N.p., 16 Oct. 2005. Web.
“Workplace Distractions: Here’s Why You Won’t Finish This Article.” WSJ. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Aug. 2015.
“The Hidden Costs Of Interruptions At Work.” Fast Company. N.p., 14 Apr. 2015. Web. 29 Aug. 2015.


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