A Productivity & Time Thief at Work

Stop splitting your attention – get more done in less time

  • Do you know what sneaky distractions are?
  • “Half-work?” What’s that?
  • Beating the culprit one task at a time

Whether you are experienced in working from home or you were thrown into it because of the pandemic, there is one thing we all have in common: distractions. We all encounter them; we all have to deal with them. Some people struggle to keep distractions at bay, some seem to manage them more easily.

What’s the difference between the two?

I’ll hazard a guess and say, the ones who struggle the most and fall prey to distractions are the ones who may not even know what distractions they are prone to give in to.

Before you tell me that it’s perfectly obvious that your kids are the biggest distraction, I won’t argue with you. Having kids around and trying to work is challenging, to say the least. But truth be told, that’s only partially true. Even if you had the perfect working conditions you might fall into a far sneakier trap, splitting your attention between various tasks. It’s a major productivity and time thief and is called “half-work.”(1)

I call “half-work” a sneaky distraction because it is by no means an obvious one like checking Facebook, searching for something non-work-related on the internet or having to deal with cranky kids. We may not even be aware of this drain in productivity and squandering of time.

Let me explain.

James Clear, author of the book Atomic Habits, coined the term “half-work.” He writes in his blog:

“In our age of constant distractions, it’s stupidly easy to split our attention between what we should be doing and what society bombards us with.”(2)

Instead of being fully engaged and focused on the work at hand, or any activity for that matter, we are prone to dividing our attention. Here are two examples to clarify what this means:

  • You start writing a report but stop randomly to check your phone for no reason or open up Facebook or Twitter. (3)
  • Your mind wanders to your email inbox while you’re on the phone with someone. (4)

Because we’re not fully engaged in and, therefore, not fully committed to and focused on what we are doing, it “takes twice as long to accomplish half as much.” (5)

The situation changes tremendously the moment we have a firm deadline. Think of the last day at work before going on vacation. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has experienced it, but we get an awful lot accomplished that last day. Why? Because we don’t divide our attention between tasks, we eliminate distractions, and we’re 100% focused on getting done what needs to get done.

“This complete elimination of distractions is the only way I (Clear) know to get into deep, focused work and avoid fragmented sessions where you’re merely doing half-work.”(6)

But working fully engaged, focused and committed isn’t always easy because we are so used to splitting our attention.

Some days I find it hard, and I have to remind myself to focus and finish the task at hand, only the task at hand and nothing else. To make it easier I turn off my phone, close my email app and set a timer for approximately 30-45 minutes. During this time I’m not allowed to do anything but work on the task I set for myself. I’m not even allowed to go to the bathroom or get a coffee. After these 30-45 minutes I’m allowed to take a short break, but quite often I just keep working and finish what I’ve started. I only take a short five-minute break when I feel stuck or nature is calling. If you take a break, don’t check emails or look at any electronic device! The temptation to “quickly” answer a few emails is simply too great, and you’re back at square one.

Thankfully, some days it’s really easy, and the reward is a feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction and/or some spare time to go for a walk or play with my cat.

Just imagine what it would mean for you to focus and commit your attention to the work at hand instead of allowing your mind to wander?

Give it a try. Just make sure that you focus your full attention on the right work aka “important work.” If you need a refresher on what defines important work, jump back to my blog Urgent – Busy – Important Work and read it here and you’re well on your way to beating this sneaky time and productivity thief.

As a reward use the “extra” time to meet with a friend, physically distanced of course, play with your kids, exercise, go for a walk, read a book, you name it. Or use the momentum and dive right into your next important task.

Let me know what you think. There is always room for a note in the comments below. See you next time,


(1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) James Clear, 3 Time Management Tips That Will Improve Your Health and Productivity

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