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Overcoming distraction in the Federal workforce

April 29, 2022 - 17 min read


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Why is distraction such a problem?

Implications of a distracted government workforce

How coaching benefits focus and productivity

How to help yourself and your team

Distraction!  It hits all of us, one way or the other.  At work, at home, the grocery store, and even when we're in our most zen moments, meditating.  Is it really any wonder we are so distracted?  I bet right now, while reading this article, you are thinking about the laundry that needs done, what you will have for dinner tonight, can you leave your shift on time to pick the kids up from school, that email your colleague sent that made you count to ten, and of course, your boss “breathing down your neck,” whether in person or over a MS Teams meeting.

Distractions are so common in today’s faster-paced, data-inundated, and visually stimulated world. For some it is the blurred boundaries of remote working and for others the myriad distractions new technologies have added to our daily lives; it is no wonder that maintaining focus at work is more challenging than ever.  

Why is distraction such a problem? 

A recent study conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit suggests that only 53% of employees spend more than one fully focused hour on a task over the course of a typical workday and that 28% of work time is lost to distractions annually.  

If we take a slice of this lost production, by looking solely at the Federal workforce, with over 2 million employees, not including active duty military and contractors, this loss of work time adds up to approximately 582 hours lost per employee, annually. That’s over 1.1 billion (yes, you read that right, 1.1 BILLION) annual hours of lost productivity. What productivity means looks different for different types of roles, but lost productivity often translates into important work that isn’t being done on time or in the right way.  

While it’s tempting to apply a cost in terms of productive hours lost, the way distractions invade every hour and minute, eating away at our focus and deteriorating the quality and effectiveness of work across the entire day is likely far more costly. Consider how the 28% of work time quoted above could translate into being distracted 17 minutes of every hour or losing your focus every 42 seconds. Lack of focus becomes pervasive. 

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Implications of a distracted government workforce

Even more disconcerting is that these daily distractions can have potential national security implications. Studies have found that a lack of focus can result in errors, accidents, and injuries to the employee, their colleagues, and the public. 

Think about the potential impact if a distracted Transportation Security Officer at a major airport misses a knife, gun, or drugs put through the carry-on line. In 2021, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Transportation Security Agency (TSA) confiscated close to 5,700 firearms — the most ever in the agency’s history. For TSA, any distraction, no matter how small, could have devastating implications for the traveling public.

Perhaps more daunting, the average day for the U.S. Customs Border and Protection Agency included processing nearly 500,000 passengers and pedestrians, almost 90,000 truck, rail and sea containers, 160,000 incoming privately owned vehicles, and $7.6 billion worth of imported products. That same average day also involved over 1,700 apprehensions, confiscation of 4,700 pounds of drugs, and seizures of $342,000 in illicit currency and $9 million worth of products with Intellectual Property Rights violations.

Doing the job well requires focus and attention to detail. Again, imagine the consequences if this workforce of over 64,000 men and women was distracted and not focused for 28% of their average day.

Indeed, BetterUp research suggests that the ability to focus one’s thoughts on their current priorities is the top behavioral driver of productivity as shown in the graphic below.  Improved focus is also the single greatest development opportunity across our members, including those we work with within the Federal government.

Productivity Alluvial Final


How coaching benefits focus and productivity

Before onboarding to the BetterUp platform, members complete an assessment based on our Whole Person Model™ which measures mindsets, skills, behaviors, and outcomes across 31 sub-dimensions that can be developed through coaching. 

At baseline (pre-coaching), focus was a development opportunity for over 53% of Federal government members — their aggregate score on focus was 26% lower than BetterUp’s cross-industry average. After working 1-on-1 with a dedicated BetterUp coach, focus among Federal government members improved by 85%. Over half of this group no longer identified focus as a development opportunity.

Given focus is the top behavioral driver of productivity, it is no surprise that productivity has improved by 17% among all BetterUp Federal government members and 60% for those Federal government members who started off with it as a development opportunity. 

Benefits of coaching for individuals include (but are not limited to):

  • Improved introspection and self-awareness
  • Safe space to gain perspective and practice new skills
  • Renewed sense of purpose, focus, and clarity
  • Greater accountability for making progress on goals

Learn more about how coaching helps focus and productivity.

How to help yourself and your team

While most people (76%) in the 2020 EIU study believe the responsibility for minimizing distractions and maintaining focus is up to the individual to manage, not every employee, especially within the Federal workforce, has access to professional coaching. With this in mind, BetterUp’s team of behavioral scientists has identified several evidence-based actions that individuals and leaders can implement to help improve focus, productivity, and ultimately, effectiveness.

Improve your own focus

  • Minimize distractions in your work environment: Not only are distractions costly to the immediate task at hand, interruptions and task switching deplete your mental resources and energy. This means not only do you need to recover and re-focus on your work, you also tire yourself out from doing so. The result?  A vicious cycle of barriers to focus and productivity. Here are some ways to minimize distractions and improve your focus, while in the office or workplace (including remote work):
    • Put your phone away so as not to be distracted by text messages.
    • Mute social media and internal communication notifications. When possible, turn off message notifications and refrain from checking email in order to complete specific tasks.
    • Eliminate peripheral noises by using noise-canceling headphones or listening to music (preferably without lyrics). Both are shown to help with concentration and cognitive processing.
    • Reserve and respect dedicated focus time by scheduling “no meeting” blocks in your calendar.
  • Make decisions that support your physical health: Our bodies and minds are inextricably connected. That is why it is important to do whatever you can to maintain and/or improve your physical health. Although taking care of yourself may not seem like the obvious answer, rest, physical activity, and a nutritious diet are focus and productivity boosters.

    There are countless ways to bolster your physical well-being, but here are some simple ways to take action:
    • Stay well-hydrated and snack healthy — what you eat has an impact on how your brain functions. Proactively consume healthy sources of energy throughout the day to improve focus and help avoid sugar cravings and comfort foods. 
    • Practice breathwork and mindfulness exercises
    • Sleep well! The National Sleep Foundation recommends most adults get between 7-9 hours of sleep each night.
    • Plan, and take, well-timed breaks. Research suggests that concentration and performance suffer without intentional breaks and that even brief breaks (~30 seconds) help you return to work with a more focused mind.
    • Try a short stretching routine — perhaps during one of your breaks! Stretching reduces feelings of exhaustion and improves your ability to focus in the short-term.
    • Engage in regular exercise or physical activity. Research suggests regular exercise boosts the brain's dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin levels, which in turn affect concentration, attention, and mental sharpness.
  • Set goals and create priority lists: To help you stay on track and focused, set clear, organized goals and create detailed priority lists. A few actions you can take to support this are: 
    • Prioritize your work and set reasonable objectives for each day. One useful prioritization tool is the Eisenhower (Urgent-Important) Matrix
    • Break goals down into bite-sized components or objectives.
    • If relevant, write out critical tasks for each hour. Consider using calendar blocks to dictate what you should be working on in a given period of time and test out time blocking techniques to limit the amount of your time dedicated to a single task or project.
    • Delegate tasks. Delegation means assigning work that you do to someone else on your team.

      Delegation is one of the most difficult concepts for new managers, as they have often been promoted or recognized for their individual contributions. However, delegation not only improves efficiency and decreases your overall workload, it also shows trust and helps to empower and motivate others. Depending on your agency and type of work, there are several ways to effectively delegate tasks and responsibilities.


Improve your team’s focus

  • Increase employees’ sense of autonomy: This includes providing personnel with some level of control or decision-making latitude over their actions, work projects, and work schedule. A sense of autonomy and control over one’s work drives involvement and engagement, leads to innovation, and increases overall job satisfaction.

    What is difficult about providing a sense of control is that no one-size-fits all for personnel in various functions. For example, control over one’s schedule might mean schedule flexibility among exempt personnel or knowledge workers, whereas it could manifest as schedule consistency and predictability for shift workers.

    Similarly, giving employees control over all aspects of their work is not feasible, especially when you are in a front-line leadership position. Shifts must be staffed, specific tasks must be completed, and personnel need to be physically present in certain locations. However, being cognizant of what must be rigid in one’s role can help bring awareness to where there is room to be more flexible. Empower employees by giving them more control where you can.  
  • Provide role clarity: While role clarity may seem at odds with autonomy, lack of clarity is disempowering and unsatisfying. Research suggests that role ambiguity ultimately leads to frustration and unproductivity because personnel are unable to effectively identify what to work on and what direction to go in. As leaders, it is our responsibility to clearly define team members’ roles and communicate performance expectations. This establishes the guardrails of their autonomy. 
  • Establish communication norms: There is no greater distractor in today’s workforce than a constant influx of communications: e-mails, MS Teams messages, phone calls, text messages, and more. As a leader, you can establish norms for communication both explicitly and implicitly. 
    • Explicitly, give others permission to protect their time and promote their own focus. Examples include:
      • Advocate for “focus time” to discourage or prevent the checking of digital communications
      • Establish guidelines around asynchronous communications so that messages and e-mails can be sent without the expectation of an immediate response
      • Establish guidelines for how different communication channels should be used. For example, which communication channels (e.g., e-mail) are used for what purposes and what is the guidance for frequency and response?
      • Ask for feedback on how you can improve the team’s communication, and make adjustments as needed
    • Implicitly, establish norms by role modeling the behavior you’d like others to exhibit. Examples include:
      • Schedule your digital communications (e.g., e-mail, MS Teams message, etc.) to send within normal business hours
      • Clearly label digital communications as “urgent” or “not urgent” to help others prioritize
      • Hold Musters or other “stand-up” meetings at the beginning of the shift or start of the day
  • Practice intentionality and role model self-care: Leaders set the tone for the behaviors of the team and organization. Just as sending and responding to email communication outside of normal work hours suggests that your direct reports should be doing the same, visibly multitasking or not being present during meetings gives others permission to do so.

    Be intentional about what behaviors and values you are modeling.  Be a strong role model for how you expect others to show up at work and for themselves. Rather than dictating desired behaviors, encourage others to take care of themselves. Be sure you are visibly and consistently taking care of yourself as well!

Take action

We will never be able to get rid of every distraction. Like stress, it is part of our modern lives. Yet we can learn to recognize what distracts us and use some basic tools to help us recover more quickly from those distractions.

Coaching is just one way, albeit an incredibly effective one, to help us learn to manage our distractions before they become debilitating or lead to devastating outcomes. For more information on how to sign up for a BetterUp Coach, request a briefing.

About the authors

woman-angela-bailey-speaking-at-podium-distraction-in-government-workforceAngela Bailey, retired SES and former DHS CHCO. Angie began her began her career with the Social Security Administration, earned a BA and MA in Leadership, and became Chief Human Capital Officer with the Department of Homeland Security in January 2016. She worked for the Department of Defense as a Labor Employee Relations Officer and Human Resources Director, and within the US Office of Personnel Management, as a Deputy Associate Director for Recruiting and Hiring, Associate Director for Employee Services, and Chief Operating Officer.  Most recently, Angie founded AnandaLife, LLC. to share her knowledge, insight, and life experiences on achieving personal and professional leadership excellence, becoming an innovation catalyst, and finding coherence of mind, body and spirit.  


headshot-michael-litano-overcome-distraction-in-government-workforce Michael Litano, Ph.D., BetterUp AVP, People Insights | Government,  International, Behavioral Analytics. Dr. Mike Litano is AVP of People Insights at BetterUp and an Adjunct Professor of graduate-level courses at Georgetown University. At BetterUp, he leads teams of Ph.D. behavioral science consultants that advise federal agencies and international/global organizations on best-practice behavioral solutions to organizational challenges. Prior to BetterUp, Dr. Litano built people analytics and strategy teams at both Capital One and NASA (LaRC). He earned his Ph.D. in Industrial-Organizational Psychology from Old Dominion University in Norfolk, VA in 2016.

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Published April 29, 2022

Michael Litano and Angela Bailey

Dr. Mike Litano is AVP of People Insights at BetterUp and an Adjunct Professor of graduate-level courses at Georgetown University.

Angela Bailey, retired SES and former DHS CHCO, CEO and Founder AnandaLife, LLC.

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