Tune out distraction, turn up productivity

Let’s face it — we’re constantly surrounded by distractions.

Whether it’s using your cell phone while driving, trying to make it through a trip to the grocery store with young children in tow, or … Squirrel! Sorry, where were we?

Distractions are omnipresent, but they’re especially bothersome when you’re at home or the office trying to get work done. However, there are techniques for overcoming distractions in the workplace, and they start with a concept known as mindful focus.

Dr. Shilagh Mirgain and Bev Hays, adjunct faculty with the Center for Professional Development at the Wisconsin School of Business, will discuss this practice in their “Cultivating Mindful Focus” presentation, Tuesday, August 25, from 9–11 a.m. at the Alliant Energy Center as part of IB’s ongoing Seminar Series.

Hays and Mirgain say the content of their presentation is an introduction to the cultivating well-being curriculum, based on the work and research of University of Wisconsin’s world-renowned neuroscientist, Dr. Richard Davidson, and his book The Emotional Life of Your Brain.

During the session, Mirgain and Hays will explore the challenges and costs that our culture of distraction creates in today’s work environment — for both the worker and companies, in professional and personal lives. They will lead participants through several evidence-based mindfulness techniques that can aid in strengthening one’s ability to stay focused and/or more quickly recover from distraction and return to focus.

Dr. Shilagh Mirgain

“Current research on the workings of the human brain indicate that we can change our brain, developing new or strengthening existing neural pathways, and thereby changing our mental habits,” Mirgain says. “This incredible ability of our brains to change based on experience and training is called neuroplasticity and it means we have a choice: We can change our minds and change our lives.”

“What this also means is that well-being is a skill that can be trained,” adds Hays.

According to Mirgain and Hays, Davidson’s research, along with that of other neuroscientists, has identified a number of techniques whereby people can improve skills like focus, resilience, and positive outlook — our overall well-being — through repeated practices of these techniques.

Bev Hays

“The first step is to stop or pause,” advises Hays. “Begin to notice how often and easily you get distracted and what is it that pulls you off course — what hooks you, your autopilot response to certain cues. This autopilot response is a mental habit, like continually checking your phone with or without reason. A 2013 study from Nokia says that we check our phones every 6 minutes — that’s 150 times a day!”

According to an October 2014 article from the Daily Mail, the average person actually spends 3 hours and 16 minutes per day on smartphones, which means we check our phones roughly 1,500 times per week. At 214 times per day, that’s 43% higher than Nokia’s 2013 numbers.

“The most common reason we hear for not doing the recommended mindful meditation practices is that there is no time,” says Mirgain. “What statistics like this show is that it might just be a matter of making better use of our time. We can show you how to find the time and ‘just start’ with 5 minutes a day.”



Competing for our attention

Workplace distractions aren’t a new concept, but they do appear to be growing.

“There are definitely more distractions — notably with the advancements in technology,” Hays notes. “We now have email, IMs, texting, computers, and our mobile devices. All of these advancements have brought amazing improvements in communication and information sharing, increasing the speed with which we can accomplish things. However, this speed of information and electronic accessibility means that we are ‘on’ 24/7 and it carries with it a heightened expectation for immediate response.”

According a February 2011 article from The Telegraph, people are bombarded with the equivalent of 174 newspapers worth of data per day. While an individual can only churn through and send out the equivalent of six newspapers worth of information a day via text, email, social media, etc., the 2011 article states, that’s still a 200-fold increase in our output from 24 years prior.

Hays and Mirgain say they often hear from the people they work with that major distractions include email, meetings, and other people. But distractions don’t necessarily have to come from outside sources. Mirgain and Hays point to a Microsoft Canada customer insight study, which found that more than 60% of people who are heavy users of technology, such as social media, multi-screens, etc., reported getting sidetracked by unrelated thoughts and daydreams.

The costs to employers from distracted workers can be staggering. Hays and Mirgain say some estimates put the cost at over $650 billion per year. A 2013 study of workplace productivity also found that 40% of employees are frequently distracted and unable to disregard the distraction and get on with the job, Mirgain and Hays note. In addition, the study indicated 25% of employees are completely unproductive 7-plus hours per week and 22% of employees are completely unproductive for 5 to 6 hours per week; the cost of these distractions equal 11% of people costs.

Defeating distractions

There’s a lot employers and employees can do to overcome workplace distractions — saving time and money in the process — and it doesn’t take a lot of work.

Hays and Mirgain plan to teach simple “micro practices” for dealing with distractions and cultivating focus during their August 25 presentation. The key, they say, really just comes down to working in a mindful manner — mindful of yourself and others.

“We each need to strengthen our ability stay focused,” Mirgain says. “We need to increase our awareness of how we distract others and modify that behavior.”

“And we need to build new guidelines for workplace etiquette that address this changing environment,” adds Hays.

“It’s important that employers understand the incredible benefits that can be derived from investing in their employees’ well-being and prioritize creating an environment that fosters this,” says Mirgain.

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