This post was refreshed on July 26, 2022
Leaders typically underestimate the cost of distraction, but when I walk my clients through the implications of constantly interrupted work, they are often surprised by how much money their company is wasting on lost productivity year after year.
In fact, technology researcher Jonathan Spira estimates that interruptions and information overload cost the US economy $1 trillion per year.
And while the cost of distractions to the entire country may be of interest, you’re probably more concerned with what interruptions cost you or your business.
To get a comprehensive picture, let’s take a look at both the direct and indirect costs of distractions.
Direct Costs of Distractions at Work
Dr. Gloria Mark, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, has done extensive research on the effects of distraction on productivity.
Her initial research, published in 2004, found that the average worker is interrupted every 11 minutes, and takes 23 minutes and 15 seconds to fully recover from the distraction.
So a company that has 55 employees with an average salary of $50,000 annually, will pay $1,065,900 per year for lost productivity due to distraction. And this is a conservative estimate that only considers the direct costs of distractions.
Why are distractions so costly?
Distractions and interruptions require us to constantly switch tasks, or move our attention from one thing to another. We may be distracted by someone else, our technology, or our own struggles with staying focused for any extended period of time.
When we switch focus, however, we considerably slow our progress on everything we might be working on.
To understand why task switching is so costly in terms of productivity, we can use cognitive psychologist Yana Weinstein’s simple test:
- Use a timer like one on your phone to time yourself as you count from 1-26. How many seconds did it take? Write down your answer.
- Next, time yourself as you recite the alphabet. How many seconds did that take? Write down your answer.
- Now time yourself as you switch back and forth between the two activities—in other words, “1-A, 2-B, 3-C” etc. How many seconds did that take? Write down your answer.
If there were no cost to task switching, it should take you exactly double the amount of time to do the switching activity. I suspect you’ll find it takes you much more than double the time.
I encourage you to do that math: is it 20% more time? 50% more time? 100% more time? And this is with the simplest activities (counting and reciting the alphabet).
How much harder are your work activities than counting or reciting the alphabet? Starting to get the picture?
This simple exercise makes it abundantly clear why addressing distractions at work is critical to shore up your company’s bottom line.
Indirect Costs of Distractions at Work
There are also indirect costs that can and should be added to the equation, in order to tabulate the true cost of distractions on knowledge workers.
Why knowledge workers need a “thinking environment.”
Knowledge work is defined as work for which “thinking” is the raw material. The products of knowledge work are intangible brain outputs like communications, information, complex decisions, analysis, planning, and critical thinking.
If thinking is a raw material of knowledge work, then the environment in which that thinking is executed is relevant. The thinking environment is formed by how individual knowledge workers feel about their tasks and their jobs overall (their emotional state), and by how well the tool they use to produce the thinking—their brain—is performing (their physical state).
When knowledge workers experience constant interruptions in the work environment, their ability to think clearly is hampered. The negative impact goes well beyond a short-term loss of productivity.
Knowledge workers experience the cumulative effect of constant interruptions as increased stress, scattered thoughts, and loss of control over their work. This can lead to disengagement, burnout and, ultimately, turnover.
Distraction is the single biggest barrier to satisfying work.
In my work with clients, I have found that distraction is the single biggest barrier to meaningful, satisfying, thoughtful work. Distractions sabotage not just our performance, but also the way we show up in the world.
Constant distraction leaves a trail of scattered thoughts and partly done tasks in its wake. It leaves us feeling overwhelmed and tired. And when our busy, exhausting days don’t come with a sense of accomplishment, our work feels unsatisfying at best—and demotivating at worst.
What Is the Cost of Burnout?
Progress motivates us, and accomplishment makes us feel happy and satisfied at the end of our work days. When we multitask or shift our focus because of distractions, we reach our objectives more slowly, if at all.
When we eventually do complete a task or project, we are more likely to feel depleted and burned out, rather than rewarded and fulfilled.
What does burnout cost individuals?
The World Health Organization added burnout to its handbook of medical diagnoses. It defines burnout as “a syndrome… resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” And describes the symptoms of burnout as:
- feelings of depletion or exhaustion
- feelings of mental distance from, or negativity about one’s job, and
- reduced effectiveness at work.
The symptoms of burnout are virtually the same as the symptoms of disengagement, which Gallup describes as “unhappy and unproductive at work and liable to spread negativity to coworkers.”
In addition to the emotional and physical toll that burnout takes on individuals, there are enormous consequences to businesses.
What does burnout cost companies?
Decreased productivity translates to decreased revenue. And there is a cost to losing qualified workers and having to hire and train new workers.
According to the Gallup report State of the Global Workplace: 2021 Report, the vast majority of workers in the US and Canada are disengaged, and nearly half of American workers are actively looking for work or watching for job opportunities.
So what does this high rate of disengagement and burnout cost employers?
The report finds that replacing workers requires one-half to two times an employee’s annual salary.
Keeping a disengaged worker costs about 20% of their annual salary, and replacing someone who leaves costs one-half to two times their annual salary. Therefore, if the average salary of your workforce is $50,000, the cost of disengagement to your company per employee could be anywhere from $10,000 to $100,000.
The most troubling part is that most employees say that their companies could have made changes to keep them on the job.
Before the pandemic, about two-thirds of employees reported feeling burned out sometimes or very often. Since then, it’s likely the number of burned out workers has only grown.
How to Help Employees Focus at Work
As a company leader, you may be in a position to help your workers get back in the driver’s seat of their work and their lives. Implementing policies that achieve this will increase employee engagement and productivity.
Here are a few actions you can take right away to help your workers take back control of their environment, their time in meetings, and their technology:
Control the environment.
Encourage employees who work either in the office or from a home where there are other people to use simple technology to signal to others when they are engaged in deep focus work.
For example, workers can set a humorous Do Not Disturb sign on their desks or put on headphones to let others know that they cannot be distracted.
This “do not disturb” time works best in increments of 10-60 minutes, followed by a break where you check in with others in the office (or the house). Read more about how to control the work environment in my article for the Harvard Business Review.
Take charge of technology.
Email is one of the biggest time stealers in the workplace. Work with your team to set a corporate email policy, one that recognizes the harmful effects of after-hours emails.
Also, you can encourage team members to put their Smartphones in Do Not Disturb mode when in meetings or working on projects. (This does not mean silent or vibrate.) Doing so allows workers to choose when to get the information from their devices, not the other way around.
For more ideas on how to make technology work for you and your team, read my article Control Your Tech or read my book The Happy Inbox: How to Have a Stress-Free Relationship with Your Email and Overcome Your Communication Clutter.
Make meetings matter.
Encourage team members to include an agenda and goal with every meeting invite. Tell team members that if they call a meeting, they need to explain each person’s role in that meeting and what is expected of each attendee. This way, every person can come prepared and know the meeting will be a good use of their time.
Attention Management Offers a Solution
In our digital age, no amount of time management training will help workers manage the number of demands on their attention.
Instead, attention management training is the most effective path to increase worker engagement and improve productivity.
Attention management training is built on the premise that attention is the gateway to high-quality knowledge work. When workers know how to control their attention, they can stave off the interruptions that cost companies billions every year.
The Empowered Productivity System
Empowered Productivity™ is the workflow management system I’ve developed and refined through work with tens of thousands of knowledge workers over the course of two decades. The foundation of this system is attention management.
Knowledge workers who learn the system develop the habits and behaviors to improve their productivity and organize every detail of their personal and professional lives.
Empowered Productivity is the workflow management system that has put successful leaders and sole contributors across the globe back in the driver’s seat of their work and their lives, by giving them the skills and tools to make the most of their moments, and achieve more of what’s important.
Empowered Productivity Training for Individuals
I offer an online, video-based Empowered Productivity training course for individuals.
However, I only open registration once or twice a year, and only for a few days. If you’d like to get notified when it’s time to sign up, click the button below.
Empowered Productivity Training for Teams
I also offer live training for teams, either in person or virtually. If you’re interested in training your team to use the Empowered Productivity System, please click the button below to start a conversation.