How to Distinguish Between Distraction and Opportunity

Posted by Rock LaManna

Should You Stay Focused or Pursue the Profitable Distraction?

A recent study said that daily distractions can cost your business more than $10 million per year.  On the flipside, a strategic distraction can make you millions – even billions (ask Starbucks.)  So when is it okay to be distracted, and when should you stay focused?

The $10 million figure comes from a study by  In a survey of employees from companies of more than 1,000 employees, daily distractions were found to waste more than $10 million each year.

Daily, often digital, distractions include a bulging email inbox or Facebook.  This is a by-product of our time, when the Internet consumes us with all its offers, articles, and software solutions.

It’s new in the technological sense, but distractions to a business owner are nothing new.  Not in the least.

Business owners are constantly distracted.  It’s easy to get sidetracked by a family issue, a disagreement among your management staff, or a new product line you’ve discovered on the marketplace.  All these distractions take you away from your plans and goals (provided you have those in place).  

But there’s a reason why you sometimes get distracted, and it can actually be beneficial – even profitable - to your business. 

The goal of this post is to provide you with a litmus test to determine when it’s okay to go down the rabbit hole, and when it’s best to stay focused.

Daily Distractions – Public Enemy #1

First, we’ll focus on the downside of daily distractions – primarily the digital ones. According to the survey, these were the biggest distractions in the workplace:

  • Email processing: 23%
  • Switching windows to complete tasks: 10%
  • Personal online activities such as Facebook: 9%
  • Instant messaging: 6%
  • Texting: 5%
  • Web search: 3%

How many times have you ventured down the digital rabbit hole?  It’s ridiculously easy to get mired in an online search, or sort through your email, or drop what you’re doing to answer a text.

Not only is it contributing to our collective inclination toward short-term thinking, it's costing us money in intangible ways.  The Mashable article about the study noted that digital distractions “negatively effect individuals’ ability to creatively solve problems, think deeply about work-related issues, efficiently process information and meet deadline.”  Ouch.

Should You Stay Focused or Pursue the Profitable Distraction?

Maggie Jackson, author of the book Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age, agrees.  In an article that appeared in the Harvard Business Review, she stated that all of today’s distractions “foster a culture of lost threads, stunted thinking and stress.”

A couple of other disturbing points brought forward by Jackson:

  • “9, 000 knowledge workers kept diaries recording the effects of interruption on their work; only when they had periods of uninterrupted time did they feel creative.”  This affects an employee’s ability to be creative and generate new ideas, the key to any business.  I delved into this subject in a previous post.
  • “Hierarchies of knowledge become flattened.  When what we pay attention to is driven by the last e-mail we received, the trivial and the crucial occupy the same plane.”
  • “Whether we’re trying to keep up with an excessive number of information sources or hundreds, even thousands of Facebook “friends,” we only have so much attention to spread around….This gives us less energy and time for deep, considered thinking or in-depth relationship.”

We’ve created this mentality, Jackson believes, and it goes back to inventions from 150-200 years ago.

“The possibility of doing two or more things at once has long intrigued us,” she says, noting that we often confuse tech savvy with knowledge generation.  So we get distracted.  We surf, we browse, we text, we download.  The Internet feeds our insatiable need for more. 

Strategic Distractions – Profitability Opportunity #1

But hold on:  Distractions aren’t always the worst thing in the world.  In a brilliant blog post, Adam Covati reminds us that “Twitter was a side project at Odeo.  Hell, Starbucks started off selling beans and espresso makers, they had no interest in brewing coffee.”

Should You Stay Focused or Pursue the Profitable Distraction?

Covati is talking about a distraction from your macro-business goals.  A new opportunity, for example, such as a new technology that you’ve discovered that could boost your profits.

You get these every day.  You’re inundated with them, really, and they’re tough to manage because many of them seem like gold-mine opportunities.  I can’t tell you how many small business owners I’ve met who ignore their core business to seek out growth opportunities in other sectors.  

It seldom works.  Either you’re stretching your own capabilities too far, or you’re neglecting your business and letting processes slip.  Either way, it’s no good.

So how do you protect yourself from the daily, digital distractions, and also choose wisely from the long-term strategic distractions?  Here are some tips from Jackson, Covati and myself to ensure those distractions don’t hurt your business:

Handling Daily, Functional Distractions

Don’t let your attention skills sabotage each other.  Jackson tells us there are three types of attention:  awareness, focus and planning/judgment.  You need to be aware of these skills, and don’t let one sabotage the other.  For example, does your sense of awareness (seeing the little icon for your emails show another arrival, for example) interefere with your focus (working on a presentation)? 

In this case, you’re wasting time not accomplishing the things you need to be focused on, and you’ll ultimately be less profitable.

Make sure your personal and your company culture don’t foster distraction.  This is an important one, and I think it really cuts to the chase.  Take a good hard look at how your business day is structured, and what your workplace is like.

Do you feel like things are careening out of control?  Are you uncertain what you’ll be doing one day from the next?  Or do you have some structure – some method to your madness?

If you’re completely lacking a structure for your approach to tasks, then you’re begging for distractions.  

Build in time away from the distractions.  Jackson notes that you should allow for time for “reflection, problem-solving and innovation.”  She’s right.  These can be conversations with colleagues, with no digital devices allowed, or time for you to turn off the email and the phone and just think about what you’re doing or work uninterrupted for a lengthy stretch on a particular project.  It’s important that you get unplugged during these stretches.  

Discerning Among the Strategic Distractions

Every day, you are distracted from your long-term business goals by a myriad of strategic distractions.  Perhaps you spy a new product on the market, or you get sucked into researching new software possibilities for your workplace.  

It’s easy to do, and some of these can be fruitful.  Some can also be extremely harmful.  Here are a few tips on how to distinguish the two.

Make sure the distraction is in alignment with the marketplace and your products.  Let’s say that in the course of doing business, you’ve discovered the marketplace is lacking a specific service.  What if you could add it to your company’s product/service line?

Covati notes that not only should the marketplace be willing to buy the product, but it must also dovetail with what you’re currently offering.   You should be able to leverage it with your customer database.

Analyze the distraction’s impact on your company.  Creating a new service sounds great in theory, but consider the law of unintended consequences.  What will happen if you implement something new?  How will it affect your current operation?  Is your team ready for the new endeavor?  

Talk about it, research it.  Don’t keep this to yourself.  Covati recommends talking it up with your staff, and really hammering on all the pros and cons to ensure it’s worth pursuing.  Do you need it?  Will it make you more profitable?  Is there someone out there already doing it, and can you compete?

Distractions, be they digital workplace distractions or strategic business-related distractions, can both have dramatic impacts on your bottom line.  They’re also never going away.

How you manage them will be critical to the success of your company.  The key is to have a structure in place that allows you to assess whether you’re plunging down the digital rabbit hole, or you’re in pursuit of a key addition to your business.  The winners will be determined by who can tell the difference.

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Topics: Strategy