We've all had the experience of work dread. The repeated tap of the snooze button, the “case of the Mondays,” the “I’m leaving early to beat traffic.” While technological advances have changed the physical location of our snooze buttons, the desire to delay our morning trudge to work is likely to remain a cliché in our culture. The fact is, the whole work day is filled with instances of wanting to put off an undesirable task. Microsoft Outlook even has a “snooze” feature to postpone reminders of events on our digital calendars. We may distract ourselves with text messages, news articles, the rise-and-fall of the Dow Jones, Facebook, Twitter, or any other of the endless distractions available to us on the internet.
A study of nearly 2,000 British workers found that, on average, employees spent only 2 hours and 53 minutes of their workday actually working. Workers listed the following ten activities as their most common distractions :
Checking social media – 47%
Reading news websites – 45%
Discussing out of work activities with colleagues – 38%
Making hot drinks – 31%
Smoking breaks – 28%
Text/instant messaging – 27%
Eating snacks – 25%
Making food in office – 24%
Making calls to partner/ friends- 24%
Searching for new jobs – 19%
The reasons we spend only a fraction of our workday working is complex and deserves to be explored in some detail.
Let’s face it, the job might just be boring. The men on the football field on Super Bowl Sunday are laser-focused, enthusiastic, and committed to their tasks. Sure, it’s a job, but we can all agree that it’s different than most other jobs. 60,000 people won’t pile into a stadium to watch me send an email. Also, the fact that a pro athlete brings excitement to the rest of us makes it more enthralling for them. Comparing our lot in life to that of a professional athlete is a good recipe for frustration, but we would be wise to consider how we might bring more fun and excitement into our own work. Things like joining a committee, organizing a work event, or creating an employee health/fitness program can all be ways to liven up our jobs.
#2: Weakness in Numbers
A study from the 1970s found that when subjects were asked to perform a physical task such as shouting, they were louder when alone than when performing in groups. These results were replicated in other tasks, such as evaluating a poem. Subjects put more effort into the task when alone than with a group. This tendency is known as social loafing, and it seems to contradict those business maxims touting “synergy” and “the whole is better than the sum of its parts.” A similar dynamic may be at play in the office setting, where we see ourselves as one small part of a larger system, never knowing the full extent of our impact and never wanting to risk working too hard when our work may seem to be as inconsequential as a raindrop in the ocean. A potential solution might be to negotiate for a performance-based bonus. If you are rewarded for higher productivity, you will have more skin in the game.
Procrastination has been analyzed in depth and entire books have been written on the topic. Some psychologists believe that passive-aggressiveness lies behind our tendency to delay tasks until the last minute. If, for instance, we are asked to have the proverbial “report” on our boss’s desk by 5pm, and we wait until 4:59, we may be covertly expressing our anger about the request by pushing it off to the last minute.
Another theory about procrastination relates to the fear of failure. One study suggests that we put off our tasks in order to delay the feared doom that might result from our best efforts. We’ve all done a less-than-perfect job on a task; and when the outcome is less than spectacular, we sometimes justify it by saying that we didn’t put much effort into the project. Maybe the reason for our procrastination, distraction, and sub-optimal work performance is that we are simply afraid that if we do our best, our very best, we’ll still fall short.
#4: The Standard Workday
The fault may lie not in ourselves, but in our shifts. The 8-hour workday was not conceived because humans performed best in 8-hour stretches. It was a response to 19th century labor conditions that saw workers putting in between 10 and 16-hour days, 6 days a week. 8 hours seemed like a more humane amount of time to spend at work so it became the norm. We know from a number of studies, however, that humans cannot sustain focus for such a long period of time. A more efficient working style would involve shorter periods of concentrated effort—as little as ten minutes in the beginning—followed by a short break.
Multitasking is another means of derailing our productivity, contributing to scattered thinking. Monotasking is much more efficient. Focusing on one mental pathway for an extended period of time allows for more creativity, experts say.
#5: Plain Old Laziness
For many of us, the fantasy of total freedom from responsibility is all too seductive. We toil for decades to earn a final respite from work in the form of retirement. We long to be out from under our boss’s thumb, so we can do what we really want—go sailing, travel the world, open a restaurant, write a novel. While daydreaming has its place, it can distract us from the everyday reality of our work life. Much better would be to channel that creativity into our jobs in order to make them more interesting for us.
The Good News
While we may feel that the obstacles to working productively are insurmountable, we should take heart that we are not alone. Most of us struggle to stay on task, to avoid distraction, and to maintain interest in our work. This is normal. Our best hope is to find ways of inspiring ourselves. This could come in the form of taking on a new and exciting role or adding new responsibilities to our existing ones.
Each of us have different personalities and aptitudes, narrowing down our options for suitable work. Ideally, we would take the time to get to know ourselves and discover what it is we’re good at, what we most enjoy, and what we can reasonably do at the current stage of our lives. It might also help to contemplate what it is about certain tasks that makes us dread them. Perhaps the resistance we feel about performing these tasks reflects deeper fears. With more insight into ourselves and our particular job, we are likely to have a better understanding of why we sometimes don’t want to work and what we can do about it.