How marshmallows can overcome workplace distractions

Petris Lapis walks you through the concept of ‘delayed gratification’ and the benefits you can reap from being a ‘two-marshmallow’ person at work.

Can you relate to this? You arrive at work and start checking emails. Coffee calls when you are half way through drafting a reply. As you approach the coffee machine, a colleague asks for help reviewing a report.

You sprint back to your desk, only to find three email alerts during a phone call from your boss because the USB needed for a committee meeting cannot be found. An hour later you see your still empty cup at the coffee machine, realise you returned the wrong report to your colleague’s desk, found the USB but still haven’t sent the email you were drafting.

Unfortunately, in moments of need your brain is not as helpful as it could be. It has evolved to be on high alert to changes in your environment as they were once a warning you might be about to get eaten. The fantastic alarm system in your brain now drives you bonkers at work because it makes you easily distracted by emails, text messages, conversations around you, ringing phones and the beeping of printers running out of paper (which everyone else can ignore). You are so deeply hardwired to be alert to changes that you are distracted by almost everything around you.

Constant distractions lower the quality of your work, increase errors and make your job less enjoyable. Researcher, Erik Altman found interruptions of only three seconds doubled error rates, while other researchers found they increased the time it took to do tasks by 20 to 40 percent.

Gloria Marks researches the impact of interruptions on office workers and has found the average time you spend on a task before being interrupted is three minutes, you interrupt yourself about 44 percent of the time and it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to return to an interrupted task.

Interruptions also decrease our intellectual ability to do tasks. Alessandro Acquisiti found that if you are interrupted by a phone call or email, you will perform 20 percent worse than if you had not been interrupted.

When you work as an EA, an inability to concentrate can lead you to miss details in reports, leave a travel website before a booking is confirmed, forget to attach a document to an email, miss information in phone calls and forget to do tasks you didn’t have time to write down.

How marshmallows can help

What can you do to cope with the multiple distractions in your workplace? One clue lies with the children in the famous Stanford marshmallow experiment. In the experiment, young children were seated in front of a marshmallow and told they could eat it now or, if they could wait until the researcher came back into the room, they would get a second marshmallow.

A few ate the marshmallow straight away. The rest tried to wait for the researcher to return so they would get a second marshmallow. Only one third of those who tried to wait were successful. Later in life, the children who could wait for the second marshmallow were the most successful; better education, higher paying jobs, better health, happier relationships and fewer addictions and criminal records. It pays to be a ‘two-marshmallow’ person.

Are you a one or two marshmallow person?

When you hear an email alert while you are typing a report, do you immediately check it or do you finish typing the report? When you are in the middle of collating travel documents and you get a message on your phone, do you immediately check it or do you finish what you were doing? Are you being a one or a two-marshmallow person with your work habits?

If you can be a two-marshmallow person by staying focused on your task and not be seduced by distractions, you will make fewer errors and finish it faster. The first step to coping with distractions might be as simple as reminding yourself that success means two marshmallows, not one.

Other simple things you can do to reduce distractions at work include clearing your desk of everything you are not working on, putting your phone in a drawer, making sure everything you need is organised and within reach and arranging for interruption free time if possible. Someone I worked with in an open plan office had a tiara she stuck on her head if she needed 20 minutes of uninterrupted time for a task. Everyone in the office came to know and respected the signal (no-one messes with the ‘Queen’) and she was able to manage her commitments more effectively and productively.