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The Distraction-Free Workplace is the Path to an Unfulfilled Life

This article was written by in Career and Work. 12 comments.


Anyone who knows me, or anyone who feels they know me after following Consumerism Commentary since 2003 or my personal blog since some time in the previous century, will know that I always turn a critical eye towards the so-called benefits of the “productivity” movement.

Techniques like those popularized by Getting Things Done and thousands of other programs on which corporations spend millions of training dollars are good for the corporation, not for the individual. I agree that there is some benefit to a strong level of organization, but most people I know who follow these tenets take the concepts too seriously.

Super-efficient task-crunching among employees is a way for large companies to fulfill their real goal of super-efficient payroll spending.

Sad robots on parade

The typical working American spends more waking time at the office than with family and friends. Leisure activity — that is, what people actually enjoy — takes a backseat to work in this country’s culture. I am confounded by the idea that one’s working environment should be completely free of distractions to allow intense, uninterrupted concentration on the computer monitor.

It’s bad enough that most people find themselves working at a job they don’t particularly enjoy just so they can pay the bills. Productivity gurus want to take those endless, tedious hours and turn them into a much less human experience. The truth is that the beneficiaries of the productivity movement are the employers. Why else would corporations spend so much money on training sessions? It’s not to make workers better people, it’s to make people better workers.

This post on Zen Habits offering 5 steps to a distraction free workspace is exactly why there needs to be a revolution in workplace philosophy. Skellie, the author of the post on Zen Habits and a blogger at Skelliewag, offers these suggestions for a productive and focused workspace:

* Keep the light, lose the view. Create natural light but nothing to look at.
* Move books into another room. There should be no superfluous reading material.
* Keep your desk focused. Remove family photographs and toys.
* Minimize digital distractions. Disable the internet and games while working. (People don’t really play games at work, do they?)
* Simplify decorations. The author is really suggesting the removal of decorations; blank walls force you to look at more interesting things like your monitor.

These are all great tips for increasing a certain type of productivity that involves freedom from some distractions. If you work in an office, you don’t have much control over the real distractions, like inconsiderate coworkers. Following Skelliewag’s tips would help you become the worker bee you’ve always envisioned, but devoid of personality.

While more people are “hoteling” and not the sole occupant of a workspace, the majority of us spend so much time in the same exact place at the office. If I were to make my particular space as uninteresting as possible, I simply wouldn’t enjoy my time there as much as I do now (which isn’t much). If I were to remove my personal items leaving more of the grey desktop visible and become more productive because of the adjustment, I wouldn’t suddenly get to spend more time away from the office with my family or working on my own more enjoyable projects. I’d simply have more work to do in the same amount of time.

Your desk and workspace is your reflection and a canvas for emphasizing anything that makes you unique. Surrounding yourself with objects that make you feel like you far outweighs your ability to stare at your computer monitor and type at your keyboard all day. If you are happy, as you might have a higher chance of being in a comfortable environment, you will be productive. You don’t need to live most of your waking life trapped in a desolate 200 cu. ft. space. What kind of life is that? Make it interesting, make it you.

You are giving the bulk of your time to a company and in return they send you to seminars to teach you how to spend that valuable time like a robot. Don’t allow yourself to be enslaved or brainwashed by your corporation and its owners into a way of working — of living since so much of our time living is working — that strips out everything that makes you who you are.

That is an unfulfilled life.

Updated February 6, 2012 and originally published October 26, 2007. If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to the RSS feed or receive daily emails. Follow @ConsumerismComm on Twitter and visit our Facebook page for more updates.

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About the author

Luke Landes, also known as Flexo, is the founder of Consumerism Commentary. He has been blogging and writing for the internet since 1995 and has been building online communities since 1991. Find out more about him and follow Luke Landes on Twitter. View all articles by .

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Mrs. Micah

I heartily agree. A distraction-free space is good if you’re trying to meditate or something. But having distractions is what keeps me going. I don’t want to be a robot. And I love it when random people come in and I have to interact with them, because it’s something different to do!

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avatar Thermopyle

I can’t agree that Getting Things Done is good for the corporation and not good for the employee.

The WHOLE POINT of GTD is less stress for the individual using the system…which leads to greater productivity.

Less stress is always good.

I do agree about the workplace thoughts, though.

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avatar Luke Landes ♦127,490 (Platinum)

Thermopyle: Look deeper. If the whole point of GTD is less stress for the individual, what’s the whole point of less stress for the individual? No matter what Human Resources says, the only reason a company cares about the health of its employees is because healthy employees come into work and do their job and cost the corporation less in health insurance.

I’m not talking about your boss, who on an individual level, cares about you as a person (I would hope). It is not this personal consideration that drives companies to send their employees to productivity workshops. It is consideration about the bottom line: healthy workers are more efficient workers, do their jobs in less time, and therefore use less of the company’s capital resources.

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avatar Thermopyle

Wait a second.

As I said, less stress leads to more productivity. Which is obviously what the corporation cares about.

But just because the corporations goal is more productivity, doesn’t mean that the less stress isn’t good for the individual.

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avatar Luke Landes ♦127,490 (Platinum)

Thermopyle: I do see your point. I probably shouldn’t have said that all programs like GTD are not good for the individual. Clearly there are some benefits and several productivity programs seem to be a good way of aligning the indivudual’s interest in good health with the company’s interest in an efficient workplace, but (a) I don’t think that’s the case for all such programs and (b) there are better and less expensive ways than increasing productivity to achieve the same health-related improvements.

The message I’m trying to convey is that many of these productivity programs seek to eliminate indicators of individuality and “make Jack a dull boy” for the sake of the company’s bottom line (which may be a faulty assumption, anyway). I wouldn’t want to hire Jack, I’d want to hire a human being with a personality that comes through in everything they do, someone who is not afraid to be who they truly are (as long as their personality would be an asset, not an embarassment, to the company).

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avatar Thermopyle

I agree with the sentiment completely. I just don’t think GTD was a good example.

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avatar KMC

Flexo, this is just a great post. Enough said.

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avatar r

Hmmm. This is interesting. As far as my own life goes, I have to disagree: I work in a field with mediocre pay but which I *LOVE*. I do what I do because I think it matters. But when I have 3 tough projects I need to start, with an overwhelming number of little details that I just can’t keep in my head all at once, and the other people in my office are talking and my head is filled with what I want to do after work and I don’t really know where to start… I can literally spend an hour trying to get started, and realizing every 5 minutes that I’ve accidentally ended up back at my email, skimming through all the unanswered emails that I don’t really ant to answer now anyways.

Eight hours later, I’m still at work, still frustrated, and preparing to stay late because I just didn’t get enough done.

Systems like GTD really help me – and it’s ME they’re helping most, although the improvement in what I get done is a real benefit as well (and one I’m happy for, because, like I said, I believe that what I do is important).

Nonetheless, it’s interesting to read your perspective here – I’ve never worked in the kind of corporate environment that a lot of the people on these PF blogs seem to, and it’s a little bit foreign to me. It’s interesting to think about to what extent there really is a mismatch in goals and priorities.

I think my biggest concern about your conclusion here is that it seems to assume that following organizational schemes like GTD make you “less human” somehow, and I really don’t think I agree. If anything, they make you MORE human – ie, more in control of what you’re doing in a conscious way. To the extent I can keep myself from slipping into a mindless hour of flipping through headlines, clicking through emails I don’t really need to do anything about without really thinking about them, and just generally sitting there dreading my own work, the less mindless my life is, and the more of myself I can end up bringing to what I’m really there to be doing…..

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avatar Sasha ♦644 (Dime)

I agree with your assessment of the “distraction-free workplace” tips provided–they seem to be more dehumanizing than anything.

However, for me, as a hyperproductive person with hordes of committments, both work and otherwise, productivity tips are always something I look at and evaluate individually. I’m always looking to improve the way I do my work because, when it comes down to it, there’s a certain list of things I need to get done each day, and once they’re done, I can go home and focus on the other things that interest me. Recently, I’ve stumbled across some great e-mail productivity enhancers which have helped me to spend less time poring over e-mail and more time doing the work I enjoy doing at my workplace, the same work which hopefully will lead to a higher salary for me at some point. I know so many people staying at work until all hours of the evening just because they’re not prioritizing and organizing properly, and it makes me sad to see it because they’re giving up on so much else.

I believe that ultimately, productivity enhancements should help lead us towards a “4-Hour Workweek” or Best Buy-type model, where our workday is entirely dictated by the tasks we complete at the time we choose to complete them, not the need to hold down a chair for 8 to 14 hours a day. As such, they can be quite useful, but employers need to become more advanced in the way they define traditional employment roles and hours.

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avatar Skellie

Hi all,

As the author of the article in question, I want to say first and foremost that you have every right to disagree with my suggestions. For the sake of accuracy, though, I wanted to correct the way the essence of the article has been reproduced here.

1. Keep the light, lose the view. In this section, I suggest allowing yourself as much natural light as possible without giving yourself the ability to stare outside during work times. On breaks I would highly recommend going outside.

2. Move books into another room. When you’re trying to get something done they’ll only help procrastination.

3. Keep your desk focused. My suggestion was that if you didn’t want to remove trinkets from your desk that you could move them to a place nearby but not in your direct field of view, so that you could still turn to them when you need to, but so they wouldn’t be a distraction.

4. Minimize digital distractions. I think this one was fairly summarized.

5. Simplify decorations. If I was suggesting removing decorations, I would have titled the suggestion ‘Removing decorations.’ In fact, I suggested simplifying down to a few of your favorite decorations, and keeping them nearby but out of your immediate field of view when working.

I’d be happy for you to draw your conclusions about the article from that, even if those conclusions are the same, as it’s a fairer representation of what was actually said.

A few questions I’ll raise is: do material objects really make us more ‘human’? Are we less human without them? Is it dehumanizing to go without a view — and if so, what about those who have never had the luxury to live/work near one? Is our personality really only embodied in trinkets and decorations?

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avatar Luke Landes ♦127,490 (Platinum)

Thanks for stopping by and clarifying some of your points, Skellie. I appreciate that.

Material objects do not intrinsically make us more human, but when you work with other people, anything that helps represent your personality is a good thing. If they distract you a tiny bit, it’s not the end of the world or the end of your job. At the end of the day, if you glanced out the window for a few seconds, you don’t lose much productivity.

Speaking of the window — if you have a view, use it. If you don’t, then you don’t. Nature is beautiful and it should be enjoyed at every moment. Artificially removing your view, closing yourself to the world, is not making the most of one blessing in particular that makes life worth living.

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avatar glblguy

Flexo, found the article you mentioned. Very interesting perspective and I do think Skellie chimming in to clarify helped.

I think this is all about finding a balance. As one that is easily distracted, I am more productive in a simplified (but not white room) style office.

Depending on what I have to get done or if I have a deadline pending, I’ll remove ALL distractions. Other times, say on Fridays, I spend a lot more time socializing and well frankly goofing off a little.

Guess what I am saying is both perspectives work depending on what you are doing.

Very interesting reads on both accounts.

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