How to Distract Your Colleagues

(Warning: this post contains song titles which may induce earworms)

We spend a lot of our time working. Or perhaps I should say ‘working’. A lot of the time we spend at work is not ACTUALLY spent working – research shows that we tend to switch tasks every three minutes and once we’re off-task it can take us around fifteen to twenty minutes to get back in the flow. So in effect, we’re off-task more than we’re on. Some of these changes in attention are self-inflicted, some are caused by the environment and many by the people around us.

Of course time spent catching up on the gossip helps us bond with each other….but there comes a point where we actually have to get stuff done. Some people are MUCH better than others at staying on task. If you have a niggly feeling that your colleagues are too darn focused and are making you look bad, here are eight easy ways to catapult them into the black hole of distraction – turning you into a ninja productivity master in comparison!

1. Master the CC-all email. This is genuinely very useful if everyone needs to know about the emergency damage-control pre-press release staff meeting, but use it to full advantage by including people in things of no importance that they have zero involvement with.

Here’s a newsletter sent to us by {random organisation} – no idea how we ended up on this list; to be honest I don’t understand what it’s about and I don’t know if it’s of interest but I’m forwarding it just in case it is.

Do a quick need-to-know-basis check: is this relevant to everyone? No? Send it to them anyway. Bingo: distraction 101. (Bonus points if this is likely to be meaningful to no one at all.)

2. Whenever someone sends you a CC-all email, be sure to use the reply-all function. Include as much unnecessary detail as possible.

Sure, I’ll take two dozen cheese rolls to support your son’s ice skating team. We’re dairy and gluten free in our house (Olivia’s gastrointestinal challenges are dreadful right now, poor button) – but hey, it’s a great cause. No need to actually provide us with cheese rolls, I’ll give you the money anyway – that probably won’t be til Friday though. Tell Levi I said hi.

Does EVERYONE need to know this? No. Choose reply-all and hit send. Now you’re really on a roll (groan).

3. Listen to music by headphones. Occasionally hum and bust out some snippets of lyrics – make it seem as if this is entirely out of your control. Maybe even dance a little. Maximum distraction factor achieved by:

a. choosing songs likely to cause earworms (that incredibly annoying phenomenon where we hear a song and then it plays in our head for hours). Apparently Lady Gaga’s ‘Bad Romance’ and Kylie Minogue’s ‘Can’t Get You Out of My Head’ are top picks for this. You’re welcome.

b. singing lyrics designed to make your colleagues wonder if you’re subconsciously sending passive-aggressive messages about your relationships with them:

Hmm hm HMM hm hm hmm…don’t you KNOW that you’re toxic?…hmmmmm hmmm hmmm hmmm…..

4. Eat noisily. Y’all know some good candidates for this, as you’ve heard other people pull this stunt at the movies. For work, we’re talking carrot and celery sticks, apples, crisps. Corn chips are especially good. There’s a name for the simmering internal hatred some people have for the sound of others eating: misophonia. If one or more of your colleagues has this, you’ll hit the jackpot. And this has huge effect if you do it just when stomachs are starting to rumble, around 11.15am. Pack your snacks, folks, and disturb away.

5. If you have any control over processes and systems, make them as confusing and time-sapping as possible. I once worked for an organisation where someone had been stealing stationery before I arrived. So the stationery cupboard was locked at all times, and only two people had access to the key. These people were hugely overworked and every time I requested a pen or some paper, it felt as if I was asking for the entire building to be shifted slightly to the right. This served quadruple-duty, irritating and diverting both me and the holder of the key at the same time (and seriously, who steals ballpoint pens? Don’t we all have a double lifetime supply of those at home already?).

6. Use the office instant on-screen messaging system (or if there isn’t one, ask someone to spend a lot of time setting it up). Don’t reserve for important reminders like ‘timesheets due 5pm today’ – you’re now a sidetracking expert, you can be much more creative than this.

It’s my birthday! My shout – there’s a tower of salted-caramel cupcakes in Room W418. Come join me!

This one works best if:

a. you’re the only person who’s noticed that tiny number above the door so everyone else refers to this location as the staffroom and therefore will not find the cupcakes, and

b. you’re based in Palmerston North but 80% of the people receiving this message are spread throughout the country. Now you’ve got people thinking about their stomachs again, you look like a mighty generous person to have on staff, and most of those cupcakes are still going to be available for you to take to indoor netball tonight. Win-win-win.

7. Talk incessantly about how BUSY you are. Spend inordinate amounts of time hovering over people’s desks or cornering workmates in their offices, listing everything on your to-do list and lamenting over how impossible it all is. Refuse any offers of help or suggestions on how to prioritise or delegate. Bask in the overwhelmingness of it all. This kind of stress is contagious so you’ll be doing your colleagues a favour by bringing their attention to just how much they have to do too, while they’re quietly freaking out over how they can’t get away from you and so are currently incapable of doing anything meaningful. NOW we’re talking. (Literally.)

8. Finally….talk at length about ANYTHING, so long as it’s completely off-topic. Preferably choose something which has absolutely no relevance to this listener, and find someone who’s too polite to walk away (comedian Catherine Tate’s nightmare work colleague character – “guess how much weight I’ve lost, go on – guess!” – has this down to a fine art).

Give every agonizing detail of your multisport endurance event to the office’s self-declared couch potato. Walk your listener through a moment-by-moment description of the wedding you went to at the weekend, telling multiple anecdotes about guests who they wouldn’t know even if they bumped into each other in the street. Visuals help too – show three weeks of Instagram posts of your St Bernard puppies to a cat-lover. The key for this one is to avoid looking at your distractee – that barely-stifled yawn or the shoot-me-now look in their eyes might throw you off your stride.

You’ve got this!

There you have it. Make everyone else SO thoroughly off-task that you’re the only one getting any actual work done, and draw your manager’s attention to this at your next performance appraisal – preferably with a spreadsheet, a Venn diagram and a ten-page executive summary (you’re a pro – you can distract people at ANY level!).

Seriously though, we do divert each other’s attention at times, and of course it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Processes, technologies and systems can be completely bananas BUT when we put our heads together and look for opportunities to streamline, we can often see better ways forward. I love talking with teams and organisations about how they can – both as individuals and as a group – use their time wisely, get their work done efficiently and have more time for fun – so if you’d like me to talk with your group next year, you can read about workshops and get in touch here. (Speaking events can be arranged via technology, so location’s no obstacle.)

Now tell us…what’s one of your biggest distractions at work? Leave a comment below and we can all get ourselves off-task reading about it!

{ 2 comments… add one }
  • Cailen October 24, 2018, 8:54 pm

    This is so brilliant and funny! I’m forwarding this to my husband now (to distract him). Haha!

    • admin October 24, 2018, 11:08 pm

      Fantastic Cailen – you get full credit for identifying strategy #9!

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