Distractions and Time Management

I’m always reading about different time management techniques but when I try to put them into practice, it can be difficult to properly utilize time management strategies in my office. I work as an IT Help Desk Technician, and I am no stranger to constant interruptions. Over the next couple of posts, I want to explore the relationship between a workplace designed around distractions and the effect it has on productivity. However difficult it may be, I do believe that there are ways to combat this and argue that you must in order to advance your career.

If workers are constantly distracted or have to work on multiple tasks at once, it’s not just an annoyance that workers should be expected to overcome with willpower. Studies have shown that multitasking makes people demonstrably worse at the task at hand. If workers are forced to change tasks frequently, there is a “switch-time” involved. One cannot instantly refocus one’s attention to a new task if distracted by a colleague or office noise. Don’t just take my word for it, here is an excerpt from the American Psychological Association’s website on multitasking:

In experiments published in 2001, Joshua Rubinstein, PhD, Jeffrey Evans, PhD, and David Meyer, PhD, conducted four experiments in which young adults switched between different tasks, such as solving math problems or classifying geometric objects. For all tasks, the participants lost time when they had to switch from one task to another. As tasks got more complex, participants lost more time. As a result, people took significantly longer to switch between more complex tasks. Time costs were also greater when the participants switched to tasks that were relatively unfamiliar. They got up to speed faster when they switched to tasks they knew better. [1]

Even if I am switching between fixing a problem I know how to fix on a user’s machine and building a new computer, readjusting to where I was in the process takes time. This constant task switching leads to behaviors that are easy to pick up and drop. I find myself surfing the web for articles a lot more when I am being constantly interrupted, because what’s the point of committing to something if I’m going to be interrupted shortly? Giving continuously not only hurts your productivity, it actually makes you unhappy as well. Studies have shown that people who give continuously correlate strongly with downturns in four aspects of psychological health. [2] Those people who gave continuously without regards to their own personal health were negatively impacted because they failed to tend to their own needs. If you have to give continuously throughout your day, and don’t have product or impact to show for it, you tend to get burned out, which affects productivity even more.


So what can we do to combat this environment that seems designed to work against us? With the rise of open offices (even though they have be shown to decrease productivity [3]) and always connected communication, how can we fight burnout when it is our human nature to be that way? If I had an easy answer for that question, I’d probably be rich. But there are several things one can do, and several of those revolve around time management. I posted an update two weeks ago referencing an article by Adam the Automator [4] about why automating was ultimately a good thing because it allows your technicians to be freed up to do more. It satisfies and fulfills the tech’s pyramids of needs and that allows them to solve more complex problems.7

Right away, you can put this research into action by taking some simple steps. First, you can schedule your free time to work on specific tasks, and then set up an environment that helps you focus. Since people are always stopping by my desk, if I go to a quiet office and close the door, I can concentrate a lot more and get much more done. Having a devoted study areas has also shown to be effective in boosting focus and productivity. [5] Management and supervisors have the greatest impact, as they are the ones who makes decisions about setting up an environment that is conducive to focus. For a help desk position, sectioned off queue time is essential to remaining motivated. The company I work I at employs a 4 hour queue time rotation, which gives me 4 hours a day for projects and wrapping up existing issues. Even though I may be interrupted during that time, it allows me to focus on giving during a narrower time frame. Harvard’s Leslie Perlow, back in the 1990's, introduced a designated quiet time for software engineers during the morning and it allowed them to launch a laser printer for the second time in company history. [6]

There are many other time techniques that have been written extensively about, but I will keep it short here today. I’ll continue to explore this dynamic of time management, productivity, structure of the job, and overall happiness in subsequent posts. I wanted to keep my suggestions small in number, as having a few specific behaviors to work on is easier than having to improve a bunch all at once. Being mindful of how you spend your time is the only way you can accomplish everything you need to and is what will allow you to move up and get promoted. You’ll look like a wizard to your coworkers around you, who will marvel at how you can get so much done, a superstar to your boss, who will be able to always rely on you, and you will be more satisfied with your life and free time.


[1] American Psychological Association, "Multitasking: Switching costs," American Psychological Association, 2006. [Online]. Available: http://www.apa.org/research/action/multitask.aspx. [Accessed 14 1 2016].

[2] M. Diehl, S. K. Owen and L. M. Youngblade, "Agency and communion attributes in adults’ spontaneous self-representations," US National Library of Medicine, vol. 28, pp. 1-15, 2004.

[3] M. Konnikova, "The Open-Office Trap," The New Yorker, pp. http://www.newyorker.com/currency-tag/the-open-office-trap, 7 January 2014.

[4] A. Bertram, "How To Make Sysadmins More Human," 20 November 2015. [Online]. Available: http://www.adamtheautomator.com/how-make-sysadmins-more-human/. [Accessed 14 January 2016].

[5] Western Governers University, "11 Ways Your Study Environment Affects Productivity (And How You Can Improve It)," 7 July 2012. [Online]. Available: http://www.wgu.edu/blogpost/improve-online-study-environment. [Accessed 15 January 16].

[6] L. A. Perlow, "The time famine: Toward a sociology of work time," Administrative Science Quarterly, vol. 44, no. 1, pp. 57-81, 1999.


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