Sunday 6 April 2014 11:31 pm

Cutting down on digital distractions

Taking a break from emails and fitting your browser with productivity tools will boost concentration

IT’S EASIER than ever to get distracted online. And whether it’s constantly dipping in and out of the rolling news cycle, responding to unimportant emails, or browsing social media, digital diversions are one of the most destructive office habits – a 2011 study for software company put the business cost at $10,375 (£6,256) per person, per year. Of course, it’s impossible to eliminate the problem entirely. And even the most productive of us are thrown off course at times –Prime Minister David Cameron has confessed to being mildly addicted to iPhone game Angry Birds. But there are a few techniques that can help to maximise your chances of staying on-task.

Responding promptly to emails is usually seen as a virtue. But with the average office worker receiving over 100 messages a day (according to a recent study by technology research firm The Radicati Group), it’s easy to see how much of a time-sapper the inbox can be. Indeed, Frances Booth, author of The Distraction Trap, cites a University of Toronto study claiming that around 12 per cent of an average company payroll is taken up by the unproductive use of email. Stephen Kelly, the government’s chief operating officer, introduced a one-day-a-week internal email ban for the Cabinet Office last year, and it could be worth adopting a similar strategy. While civil servants might be able to get away with sacrificing a whole day, this won’t suit everybody. By shutting down your email for just a few hours, the chances are you won’t miss anything important.

But email isn’t even half the danger. A 2013 study by Kansas State University academics found that roughly 60 to 80 per cent of employees’ online browsing time is unrelated to their job. It’s all too easy to open up an extra tab to keep track of the latest eBay listings, football transfer rumours or social media updates, so many are now taking the matter out of their hands.

Tools like StayFocusd, an extension for Google’s Chrome browser, allow you to set restrictions on unwanted browsing habits. Once you’ve installed the programme, log on to a site you’d like to avoid, and the extension will give you options to apply hourly, daily or weekly time restrictions, or to block the site entirely. Similar productivity tools exist for different browsers, including LeechBlock for Firefox and KeepMeOut for most other browsers.

As everyone’s heard a million times, we now live in a “multi-platform” world, with mobile and tablet use set to overtake desktop sometime this year (according to some forecasts). And mobile push notifications, bursting forth from news apps, Twitter, Facebook or eBay have a nasty habit of intruding on moments of concentration. Most apps make it easy to disable notifications, and doing so is probably a good idea.

Beyond apps, however, Booth notes that smartphones can play on our brain’s reward circuits in a way that resembles obsessive compulsive behaviour, stopping us from concentrating on other tasks for long. Do you feel highly anxious if you forget your phone? Do you sleep with it under your pillow? If so, Booth says, it may be time to reassess your relationship. Try locking your phone away, or turning it off more – your concentration should improve.

Data analysis on the move
Roambi Analytics
If “big data” is all it’s cracked up to be, we’re all going to have to get used to working with visualisation tools and chart-building software. Roambi Analytics is one of the most elegant options, and is optimised especially for mobile and tablet use. Pull data from cloud storage and start putting together graphs immediately.