Whether they come in the form of emails, texts, social media alerts or phone calls; a work colleague or fellow student popping over for a chat; or a quick look online to check that news website you’ve been following, distractions can be a drain on your productivity.

With distractions common in the workplace, it’s no surprise that all these little interruptions have an effect on businesses – though the extent may be more significant than you may think. According to a survey by OfficeGenie.co.uk, the average UK worker wastes 48 minutes a day on online distractions alone (social media being the number 1 distraction, with online shopping following closely behind). This costs UK businesses an estimated £88 billion each year in wasted hours.

Experts have studied how distractions affect people. And they’ve found that when you’re constantly interrupted, your attention span suffers, and the time you need to carry out necessary tasks increases.

Researchers from the University of California, Irvine, have analysed how interruptions work. They found that, on average, distractions make you switch from what you’re doing to 2 other activities before you get back to your original task (the average amount of time it takes to get back to what you were doing is just over 23 minutes). They also discovered that the average amount of time people spend on a single task before being distracted is just 3 minutes.

Distractions also make you more likely to slip up, with experts at Michigan State University claiming that just a 3-second interruption can double your risk of making a mistake. But distractions don’t just affect your work or your exam revision; they can have an impact on your emotional health too, causing stress and low mood as well as lower productivity.

What can you do?

Whereas some distractions may be difficult to prevent, for instance when someone at work or college needs to ask you a question, many are self-inflicted, such as breaking off from what you’re doing to check your emails or Facebook. Here are some of the ways you can avoid or reduce distractions:

Set aside some time

If you schedule times to deal with distractions such as emails and texts, it may help you to focus on your job or studies more effectively the rest of the time. Ideally, choose a time to deal with distractions when you’re naturally less productive than usual – after all, you probably know what time of day you’re good at focusing on important tasks and when you find it more difficult to concentrate. Or you could simply assign an hour at the start and end of the day to check things like emails and texts, and make it a rule not to look at them at any other time.

Switch off your phone

The telephone has become the thing that must be obeyed – when it rings we feel compelled to answer it, even if we’re in the middle of something important. It may sound drastic, but try turning your phone off when you’re concentrating on work or revising. Also let those around you know that you won’t be taking non-essential calls between certain times.

Avoid multitasking

Make a habit of working on 1 task at a time rather than dividing your attention between a variety of things you want to accomplish. Even if you have a long to-do list, you’ll find you can get a lot more done if you finish 1 task before starting another. Make a list each morning of the things you want to work on in order of priority. Then set yourself a number of high-priority tasks to complete – don’t just pick the smaller, easier tasks. Try not to feel tempted to start anything new until you’ve finished the task you’re working on.

Close your browser

If you can’t stop checking the internet throughout the day, try logging out of your social networking sites and keeping your browser closed when you want to avoid being distracted.

Don’t forget to take breaks

When you have important work or study deadlines looming, try not to work through without taking breaks. You’ll be a lot more productive if you take regular short breaks from your desk, with occasional longer breaks for lunch or a stroll outside in the fresh air.

Taking a physical and mental break can help you focus more effectively when you return to work or revising, boosting your concentration and helping you to feel refreshed.

If you find it hard to be strict about taking breaks and need a more structured approach to time management, read our article Recharge your batteries the Pomodoro way.

How CABA can help

CABA supports the wellbeing of past and present ICAEW members, ACA students, ICAEW staff members, and their spouses, partners and children up to the age of 25. For advice, information and support please: