Today’s employees are better connected to colleagues and clients than ever before. With smartphones, email, instant messaging, texting and more, workers can communicate faster and more frequently than they could in the past. While it might appear this type of technology can help employees become more productive, in reality, too much communication can spell distraction.

A new study from Apex Performance suggests that workers who are bombarded with communications end up distracted and unable to concentrate on a single task. Even more concerning is the fact that these employees typically receive no suggestions or training in how to overcome frequent interruptions from phone calls, emails and text messages to focus on their work.

“No one has taught them how to stay focused, so they don’t realize what they are sacrificing. Employees need to learn how to get back on task and stay productive despite the inevitable bell, pop-up window or phone call,” said Louis S. Csoka, Ph.D., Apex Performance president and founder.

The survey, “Attention in the 21st Century,” polled 300 full-time American workers and found that 70 percent received 21 or more emails a day. More than half said they check their email more than 11 times a day, and one-third said they check it every time they receive notification of an incoming message. 

“That equates to opening your inbox once every 20 minutes,” explained Csoka. “Prolonged focus on one thing at a time is required to efficiently accomplish a task. However, two-thirds of respondents are distracted at least every 20 minutes – and sometimes as little as 10 – by an email.”

A past study conducted by Eric Horvitz, an internal research scientist at Microsoft, found that it took the average Microsoft employee 15 minutes to return to his or her previous task after being distracted by an email, phone call or instant message. If the Apex survey results are viewed through this lens, the typical employee may only focus on any one task for approximately 15 minutes an hour, at most.

Csoka acknowledged that it’s not possible to eliminate all distractions from an employee’s workday. He said it is possible, however, to encourage “a better way to direct attention and focus so that employees can become more productive and effective in their daily lives.”