In an arena where every second counts, professional drag racer Larry Dixon knew what it meant to focus on the job. He won a record of 12 races in 12 finals, including the prestigious Mac Tools US Nationals four times. He notes, ‘Winning teams have the least amount of distractions. They have a tight group of people working towards the same common goal.’

His observation is backed up by a study in which research psychologists found that when people switch back and forth between tasks, they lose up to 50% of their efficiency and accuracy. The more complex the task, the more processing is lost. (This leads one to wonder how much engaged thinking is really being contributed at meetings if everyone present is constantly glancing at their cellphones …)

A recent Forbes article estimated that 50% of employees spend 2–5 hours per week on their phones on sites unrelated to work. Not only does excessive cellphone use lead to a drop in productivity, it also creates dangerous habits. For example, the distraction caused by texting while driving greatly increases the chances of being involved in a car accident. Distractions undermine the importance we give to the activity we should be engaged in. Succumbing to them signals an unfocused mind and potentially even a lack of respect. E B White once said, ‘Creation is in part merely the business of forgoing the great and small distractions. To produce something really worthwhile, we need to focus our attention on it.’

Scott Wiltermuth of the University of Southern California and Margaret Neale of Stanford found that even trivial information can negate one’s ability to reason objectively. Participants who had read useless information about future negotiation partners were 46% less likely to identify important issues in the negotiation than those who had been told nothing. This suggests that irrelevant or distracting information hampers clear thinking. As leaders, we need to be careful about the information we circulate and its relevance to the tasks at hand.

To inspire more committed minds in our teams this year, we should remember the words of Adam Hochschild, who said: ‘Work is hard. Distractions are plentiful. And time is short.’ Let’s not get distracted!

Author: Brett Tromp CA(SA) is CFO of Discovery Health