Is Focus a Problem at Work How to Help Employees Keep Focused and Productive - person working on ipad in apartment home (1)

Is Focus a Problem at Work? How to Help Employees Keep Focused and Productive

Nina Candido
September 28, 2022
October 9, 2022

How often do you find yourself feeling like you haven’t accomplished anything at the end of the day despite running hard all day, barely taking time for anything more than restroom breaks? How often have you thought, “If I could only have some uninterrupted time, I’d be able to catch up!”?  

Understand Why You’re Busy All Day with Little to Show

Take a minute to examine your work area with the following questions in mind:

  • How many browser windows and tabs are open?
  • How much attention does your email inbox need?

In the last 30 minutes, how many times has…

  • An email, slack, or social media (with or without sound) popped up?  
  • Someone stopped by to chat (work and personal chats combined)
  • Your work phone rang with an unscheduled call?
  • Your personal cell phone dinged with a text message, email, or social media notification?

Are you currently on a zoom or conference call while you’re checking all these other activities because you believe multitasking is the key to getting more accomplished?

While many things can prevent hard-working people from achieving productivity levels consistent with their work efforts, at the core of this problem is a lack of focus. Disruptions that divert our focus eat up huge chunks of time during our day. Removing distractions helps employees keep focused for longer periods of time.  Research conducted by the University of California Irvine found that once your focus is diverted for more than two minutes, it can take an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to return to the original task. The study also found that people who experience regular interruptions feel more stress, higher frustration, greater time pressure, and expend more effort.  According to a study by CareerBuilder, the top 10 distractions at work are:

Is Focus a Problem at Work How to Help Employees Keep Focused and Productive - person working on ipad in apartment home (1)
  1. Cell phones
  3. Internet browsing
  5. Gossip
  7. Social media
  9. Email
  11. Conversations with coworkers
  13. Meetings
  15. Smoke or snack breaks
  17. Noisy coworkers
  19. Sitting in a cubicle

For remote employees, work-from-home distractions are largely variations of those faced in the office:

  1. Interruptions from family members
  3. Outside noises
  5. Visitors
  7. Childcare
  9. Pet distractions
  11. Housework

Practical Strategies to Help Employees Stay Focused

Leaders may not fully appreciate the magnitude of this problem because they have (d)evolved to a work style that takes things as they come without fully understanding the consequences. Their employees, in turn, develop similar work styles as they strive to emulate their leaders.  Consider the following tactical steps that can be taken to eliminate or mitigate the impact of distractions:

How much time do you spend looking for things you need to complete an assignment?

  • A survey by Search Your Cloud found that it takes up to 8 searches to find the right document or information.  
  • McKinsey reported that employees spend 1.8 hours every day—9.3 hours per week, on average—searching for and gathering information.

Declutter your work area; close or remove everything you are not immediately working on.  

  • Find ways to better organize personal files and be diligent about filing everything.

How does email interrupt your day?

You’ve got mail! Turning off sounds and banners is a great strategy to improve focus. On average, employees check emails 15 times per day. Employees spend an average of 3.2 hours per day–16 hours per week–reading, re-reading, and adjudicating email messages.

Here are some more tips:

  • We send an average of 40 emails a day. Determine the best method for messages you’re sending; don’t use email as the default.
  • Approximately 72% of emails (144 of 200) received daily aren’t relevant. Be strategic and deliberate about who is copied and sent replies when using CC, BCC. Minimize Reply All.
  • Establish practices that use phone calls, texts, or internal messaging to communicate urgent matters.
  • While you’re at it, turn off sound and pop-up notifications for social media.
  • Schedule email checks twice a day—morning and afternoon.  
  • Set expectations with your managers, peers, direct reports, and customers (where appropriate) about the change to your email processing.
  • Work toward “one-and-done” handling for all email.  

Remember, each email can have one of five actions:

  • Delete: self-explanatory.  
  • Delegate: route it to someone else for handling and follow-through.
  • File: place it in the appropriate electronic folder.
  • Act: take immediate action.
  • Follow-up: schedule a date and time when action will be taken.

Is meeting madness interrupting your work?

  • Research shows 70% of meetings keep employees from doing productive work.  
  • 92% of employees consider meetings costly and unproductive.
  • Brutally assess the value of every meeting, considering alternatives.  
  • Consider designating meeting-free days or times (no-meeting Mondays, no meetings after noon on Fridays).
  • Ineffective meetings that waste time lead to lower employee satisfaction and engagement.
  • If you don’t have an agenda, don’t have a meeting!  
  • Include—and honor—time limits for each topic on the agenda.
  • Start and end on time. Don’t delay getting started, and don’t restart or repeat anything for those who arrive late.

Is your cell phone getting more attention than your work?

  • 66% of US employees use their cell phones at work several times daily.  
  • Average employees are using them for non-work activities 56 minutes per day.
  • It’s virtually impossible to ban cell phones during work hours, but employees can and should be held accountable for their productivity.  
  • Sound and banner notifications should be turned off.
  • Employees can schedule time to check cell phones just as for checking work email.

Do you believe multitasking is the key to accomplishing more?

  • Only 2% of people can multitask successfully; for the other 98% it does more harm than good.  
  • Let’s call it what it is: Multitasking is an oxymoron. Rather than doing multiple tasks at the same time, people toggle between tasks in rapid succession.
  • The split-brain focus that occurs when multitasking produces more mistakes, reduces creativity, makes it harder to learn new things, and prevents employees from being “in the zone.”
  • The best solution is to simply stop requiring employees to multitask.  
  • Remove “multitasking” skills from job descriptions and job postings.
  • Create an environment that supports creativity and high quality.

Does a ringing phone trigger a Pavlovian response to pick it up?

  • We have been conditioned to pounce on ringing phones, adopting an “answer first, ask questions later” approach—and then we’re stuck.
  • Ensure everyone has a clear, consistent understanding of what’s urgent (requiring immediate attention, time-constrained) vs. what’s critical (highly important, not time-constrained).  
  • Screen calls ruthlessly and only answer those that are urgent; the others can be called back at a time that’s convenient for you.

Are you feeling your best, physically and mentally?

  • Physical and mental health are essential to maintaining focus.
  • Ensure employees maintain healthy self-care, including a healthy diet, exercise, enough sleep, and other wellness activities.  
  • Managers should watch for signs of stress and burnout and make referrals to EAP programs or other mental health resources as needed.

Lost focus at work is a decidedly complex issue that can’t be solved overnight. In working with the suggestions in this article, it’s best to implement them gradually, allowing time for new practices to be solidified and old habits to be replaced with new ones. Checking in with employees to determine if they are experiencing any of the pitfalls discussed here is a good way to prioritize where to start. Continuing the conversation as changes are implemented and employees are staying more focused will ensure that course corrections can be made quickly if needed.  

Related articles:

Stop stacking benefits. Start being well. Set a Nivati demo


By participating in/reading the service/website/blog/email series on this website, you acknowledge that this is a personal website/blog and is for informational purposes and should not be seen as mental health care advice. You should consult with a licensed professional before you rely on this website/blog’s information. All things written on this website should not be seen as therapy treatment and should not take the place of therapy or any other health care or mental health advice. Always seek the advice of a mental health care professional or physician. The content on this blog is not meant to and does not substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

Nina Candido
Nina Candido
Nina Candido is a Sr. HR Leader with success working to achieve transformative outcomes in organizations experiencing rapid growth or M&A activity. She is a builder focused on unlocking individual and organizational potential and is passionate about creating environments where employees can thrive and grow beyond their own highest expectations.