How Much Time Do We Really Waste At Work? I Tested Gloria Mark's Equation To Find Out

I try to block out all sources of distraction during my work hours. I really do. I close myself in my room. I don't check Facebook or Twitter. I put my phone on silent. But sometimes, things happen. Sometimes I end up on Facebook looking for posts to embed in a story and my eye glimpses an instant message from a friend. Sometimes my roommate knocks and my door and asks if I've seen the cat (usually, he's hiding in my bathroom closet). And unfortunately, I've just learned, these minor distractions majorly add up. According to UC Irvine informatics professor Gloria Mark, who studies distraction, every time something interrupts your work, you lose 25 minutes of focus. She's even come up with an equation that calculates how much time we waste at work. Yikes! How many focused minutes does that even leave me?

To answer that question, I tracked every time I got distracted during work today and employed Mark's equation. And, let me tell you, the results do not leave much hope for anyone who would like to devote their full attention to work every day. In fact, the feat appears nearly impossible. Here's what I recorded:

9:09 a.m.: I began working.

10:02 a.m.: I got coffee (an imperative if I'm going to get any work done at all).

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10:18 a.m.: My mom came in to say good morning, since I'm visiting my parents for the day.

10:35 a.m.: I went to the bathroom. Blame the coffee.

10:56 a.m.: I looked up a Facebook post for an article and, I'll confess, checked my notifications before closing out.

11:43 a.m.: I went to the bathroom again. What can you do?

12:53 p.m.: I responded to a time-sensitive work email.

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1:13 p.m.: I got lunch. OK, and I pet my cat while it was heating up. How can you resist all this fluff?

1:39 p.m.: I responded to another time-sensitive work email.

1:45 p.m.: My mom came in again to turn on the air conditioning (it's OK, Mom, that was necessary).

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So, according to my calculations, I have experienced nine distractions and therefore lost 225 minutes of focused work, which means only one hour and 25 minutes of the five hours I've been working have been fully focused.

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How can that be right? I still got two articles done, I'm going on three, and I didn't feel distracted. But according to a paper by Mark and psychologists Daniela Gudith and Ulrich Klocke, you can still get work done after you've been distracted; it just takes about 25 minutes for your full attention to return to the task at hand, and you have to compensate by working faster. The price of this increased speed is "more stress, higher frustration, time pressure, and effort."

I'm not sure where this leaves me. Most of my distractions today were unavoidable (except, I'll admit, I didn't have to check my Facebook notifications, and I also didn't have to pet my cat, but that one's non-negotiable). Maybe my only option is to drop everything and flee to a cabin in the woods. That still wouldn't resolve the problems of eating and going to the bathroom — not doing those things would be just as distracting — but it could prevent people from reaching me both virtually and in person. But until that becomes even remotely feasible, I'll just have to minimize distractions when possible, tackle my biggest tasks over 25 minutes after a break, and make peace with giving the rest of my work my divided attention.

Images: Gerry Lauzon/Flickr; Giphy (4); Suzannah Weiss