Why digital devices aren't responsible for employee distraction

While many people blame their distractions on digital devices, the problem is actually within the company culture.

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Technology might be a symptom of distraction in the workplace, but it isn't to blame, according to behavior design expert Nir Eyal in his recently released book, Indistractable. Digital devices can even aid in the mitigation of every day work distractions. 

"We've all seen how over the past several years, many of us find that it's impossible to follow our pings and dings and rings. And that can be a huge source of distraction," Eyal told TechRepublic. "However, there's a misperception that technology causes distraction. While it is a proximal cause, it's not the root cause"

SEE: How to get the most from Apple's free productivity apps: 9 tips (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

The rise in tech devices has caused a digital distraction epidemic to spread across the US. The majority (75%) of Americans specifically blame digital notifications for their lack of focus at work, a reMarkable's Get Your Brain Back report found. In addition, the report found that 70% of people said emails have a negative effect on their quality of work. 

Where the distractions come from 

While people use digital devices to engage in distractions, being distracted isn't because of the technology—it starts from within, Eyal said. 

Distraction is actually caused by internal triggers. "When we feel stressed, or when we feel lonely, uncertain, anxious, fatigued, we look for psychological relief from these discomforts in our heads, with something we do with our bodies. We go check our device. We go do something with the technology to alleviate that discomfort," Eyal noted. "If we don't fundamentally understand how to deal with that discomfort, we will always get distracted by something." 

We must assess our feelings and learn to handle them in a healthy manner, rather than turn to external devices and other Band-Aid tactics. 

The idea of distractions is not a new issue, Eyal added. Going back 2,500 years, Plato discussed in The Republic how distracting the world was, claiming "all the ordinary goods of life" have "corrupting and distracting effect[s]."  

"It's not your fault that these distractions exist. You didn't invent emails. You didn't invent Slack. It's not your fault, but it is your responsibility," said Eyal. "When it comes to the workplace, we have to acknowledge that distraction in the workplace is a symptom of cultural dysfunction."

How distractions are a sign of a dysfunctional workplace

More than half of tech employees (52%) believe that they work in a dysfunctional or toxic work environment, and one of the biggest contributing factors is actually distraction, Eyal said. 

"For example, if your boss calls you at 7 p.m. on a Friday night, and says, 'We got a big crisis, you'd have to start working on it right now.' Is it the phone, the technology that's at fault, that your boss used to contact you? Or is it your rude boss that's the problem?" Eyal questioned.

While the rude boss is clearly the root problem, people lose sight of that, instead blaming the proximal cause: The technology. 

In his research for the book, Eyal said he found that other than email, workers cite Slack as the most distracting technology. Logically, Eyal decided to pay Slack a visit, because "if technology was the source of the problem, then people at Slack should be the most distracted people on earth." 

This wasn't the case. At Slack, employees get reprimanded if they are on Slack at night or on the weekends. On the wall of the company's headquarters, in big pink letters, it reads "Work hard, and go home." 

After visiting the office, Eyal said he realized that "they don't struggle with distraction at Slack. They don't struggle with it because they have a healthy company culture where people can talk about their problems, and fix this problem of distraction. When you work in a workplace where people can't talk about their problems, and distraction is just another problem, that's the real cause of why people constantly feel tethered to their devices at work," Eyal continued.

So, how do you change your company's culture? 

The first step employees must take to change their company's distracted culture, is to become "indistractable" themselves. Indistractable is a word Eyal used to describe the state of not being able to be bothered or distracted—a state of focus. 

Eyal provided the following four key steps people can take to become indistractable:

1. Master the internal triggers: People must find tactics to cope with their personal issues in a healthier way, rather than use distractions as a temporary solution. 

2. Make time for distraction: Workers should make a plan for their work day, using a calendar or to-do list, that way there isn't free time to get distracted. If you don't have a plan for the day, then you are bound to get distracted. 

3. Hack back the external triggers: By hacking back, Eyal means people need to identify what their big distractions are—technology or colleagues—and lessen their time spent on them. 

4. Use technology to fight technology: Technology isn't evil; people can actually use technology to help limit their use of it. An example Eyal provided was Focusmate.com, a website that connects workers with other workers via webcam to do focused work together. 

After workers become independently indistractable, they can attempt to spread that sentiment through their company. 

"If we are indistractable in small teams, this is how we change the company culture," Eyal said. "The solution is not email-free Fridays or no-meeting Wednesday. Those are tactics. Tactics are what you do. Strategy is why you do it. And so, it's much more important to understand why we have these problems. And the reason why we have problems in the organization is because we can't talk about problems."

The key is to get a manager on board, Eyal said, "because culture flows downhill." If a manager a display indistractability, then employees will follow by example. 

For more, check out The 10 warning signs of a dysfunctional work culture on TechRepublic.

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