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Megan Wallin-Kerth


Working Through Distraction Without Losing Quality

Modern productivity requires modern prioritizing

Published: Tuesday, February 14, 2023 - 13:03

It’s old news, but since 2019 the U.S. now has three times its former number of remote workers. Furthermore, an astounding 97.6 percent of employees want that option to remain at least partially on the table for the remainder of their careers.

But how compatible is this with the American work culture? After all, we’ve gone through immense changes in the workforce, with labor laws and regulations being a fairly recent addition, from a historical standpoint. In 1886, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) came into existence, regulating and considerably improving conditions for skilled workers while still holding onto American ideals. Then came the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) international labor union in 1905—the “Wobblies”—to represent nonskilled, women, and minority workers, as well as skilled trades.

Though the views held by various groups may have differed in terms of being anti-union or pro-union, more socialist or capitalist, many of the end goals—and results—were the same: shorter hours, higher wages, increased safety for workers on job sites. Eventually, that paved the way for today's hodgepodge of freelancers, gig workers, and regular full-time employees with remote work spaces.  

When home and work collide

Despite multiple attempts to curb workaholic tendencies, Americans often pride themselves on their ability to put work first. We use less vacation time, have shorter leave for parents, and often allow the lines to blur between on-the-clock and off-the-clock hours.

Culturally, we work more than most first-world nations, and tech giants like Elon Musk do nothing to counter the stereotype that our work is what we value most—perhaps even what we hinge our identity upon. One of our most common questions when we meet someone new is, “So, what do you do?” rather than, “What are your hobbies?” In other words, we often assign more value to what we do on someone else’s dime more than what we do at home.

Now, even during return-to-office mandates, we have many remote workers, and differences between what we do “at work” and what we do “at home” have all but disappeared. When you work at home, there’s always something to do, always an email to send, and always another crisis to manage. Your clock doesn’t determine when you stop working—you do.

Other Quality Digest writers have pointed out the benefits correlated with remote work, and yet the question remains: How do workers successfully fight a near-constant battle to protect boundaries between hours on and off the clock? More specifically, can they maintain separate spheres for work when they have a dog barking during meetings, a baby crying as they type away at the computer, the mail service knocking at the door for a signature, and the ability to log into work over the evenings and weekends to make up for any lost time?

In short, we can and we have established home office setups with considerable success—but not without recognition that remote work requires more discipline for many people than sitting in a cubicle with a screen and a cup of coffee. And for parents and caregivers, the battle lines have been drawn with particularly messy borders.

What does research say about productivity?

Before looking at the nature of distraction (the problem), we must turn our attention to the goal (productivity). On its face, productivity could merely be a way to measure how much money one person makes or takes from an organization based on the hours worked and the work they complete. However, the term has come to mean more than that—and people regularly boast about how various routines, medications, and supplements make them “more productive.”

How do people stay productive, and what are the metrics and quantifiers for productivity?

Thirty years ago, the answer would have been somewhat simpler. Ask, “How good is your company at taking a pile of raw materials, a bunch of machines, stacks of paperwork, and groups of employees, and turning out useful goods or services?” said the Harvard Business Review. Albeit, there were caveats, such as the advice to find ways to measure what is not easily quantified; look at all the factors; and make sure everyone understands and uses the same terminology, questions, and metrics.

But work culture has evolved and in the process introduced terms like “personal productivity.”

On this topic, author and keynote speaker Jones Loflin suggests a more introspective measurement approach. His research turned up the following:
• Measuring productivity with quality rather than quantity in mind
• Determining if you have been accomplishing set goals
• Looking at the increase in tasks accomplished over the same period of time on different days or weeks
• Examining process and strategy rather than mere results
• Assessing your own sense of well-being
• Measuring stress levels during, before, and after tasks are accomplished

How to manage time outside of a physical office

If time at home and time at the office are to be one and the same, the metrics above can only be applied after you have divided and conquered in a manner appropriate to your work environment. Nowadays, “work environment” is practically another term for “life.” Essentially, remote employees have to find ways to make the distractions in their lives part of the background, to provide their own structure, and to discipline their minds and bodies to produce sustainable, long-term productivity.

1. Identify and protect your top ‘productive zones

These are the times when you find either your day less distraction-filled or your mind sharper. For instance, researchers found that students did their best work in classes that began around 10 or 11 a.m., which many theorize to be due to people’s sleep-wake cycles, making the late morning a time when the brain is more alert and ready to tackle higher-functioning skills such as executive planning, time management, and abstract problem solving. If possible, see if you can move your heavy lifting to after 10 a.m., perhaps using the early mornings for more routine tasks. If that's not possible, try to find times that you know are less likely to coincide with predictable interruptions—such as kids getting off from school—and use those to your full advantage.

2. Map out plan A, plan B, and plan C to keep some semblance of routine 

While distractions can wreak havoc on our routines, it’s important to look at them as practice in building backup plans—and, when necessary, backup plans for our backup plans. If the distractions are internal, meaning that your brain is working overtime for another department (e.g., worrying about your mom’s surgery, dwelling on something dumb you said yesterday), it indicates the need to either reset with a break or check on your external environment. As its name implies, the external environment is the one outside of your head, and with it come many distractions of varying difficulty that you must try to control or remove.

For example, if the dog barks at everyone who walks past the window, close the blinds. If you can’t help but check your phone, put it out of reach or on airplane mode for a bit. Other external distractions may not be so easily contained, such as family emergencies or interruptions from children. But where there are problems, there are solutions! So, before you find yourself entirely overwhelmed, prioritize your work tasks into a routine, set the controls on your external distractions, and do your best to minimize internal interruptions as you ready yourself for the day.

3. Communicate before productivity goes south entirely

Problems that are addressed can be solved. The risks you take by not communicating your situation honestly and effectively to any affected co-workers or supervisors may actually outweigh any short-term benefits that you receive from trying to secretly juggle mounting challenges—and all the while feeling a sense of impending failure as you struggle to maintain a typical office schedule. What is considered typical may not work for you, and if getting your work done well and promptly means shifting something in your schedule or making a few adjustments in priorities, it’s better to ask what accommodations are available than to watch quality slowly erode from your daily work.

4. Take breaks or micro-breaks when needed

If you’re falling behind, an hour-long lunch might not be the best option. It also might fall at a time when you could get more work done. While following that logic is reasonable, be careful not to skip breaks entirely. If possible, reorganize your day to include periods of time that allow you to take a short walk, eat, or read for pleasure. In fact, evidence supports breaks as a help—not a hindrance—to productivity. When your brain takes a short intermission from the problems at hand, you may actually find yourself able to come back and look at them in a different way. Alternatively, you might develop mental blocks, boredom, or increased stress levels that prevent creative or constructive thinking.

5. Prioritize the three S’s: sleep, sanity, and strategy 

It’s not the most exciting advice, but the key to maintaining efficiency and quality in your work may well be in keeping a regular bedtime whenever possible, and using your weekends to focus on reducing mental and emotional deficits in your personal life. This will allow you to switch more readily into problem-solving mode during your work hours. Fortunately, the three S’s are so closely tied that your efforts in one area are likely to bleed into the others. Studies indicates a strong correlation between good sleep, mental health, and job performance. Even some of the strongest, most resilient members of our country—members of the U.S. military—can’t  do their jobs as effectively with less sleep. So rest up when possible, don’t equate making yourself miserable to being more productive, and take some time to deliberately plan for your workweek.

While you may not be able to plan around distraction, planning with distraction in mind is not only possible, it’s a necessity.


About The Author

Megan Wallin-Kerth’s picture

Megan Wallin-Kerth

Megan Wallin-Kerth is a Quality Digest editor and writer.


Working Through Distration

Excellent article, I really appreciated the reminders and some new suggestions!