Keep Your Head In the Game

Originally posted on April 13, 2013 @ 8:19 AM

Keep Your Head In the Game

By Phil La Duke

After all the hoopla in the U.S. about the dangers of texting while driving, a new study has found yet another reason that people drive like fools. In a study released by the Erie Insurance Group 10% of all crashes were caused by “distracted” driver, and while distracted driving includes people texting while driving, this subpopulation accounted for only 12% of accidents.

American’s tend to get wigged out by studies like this. It makes sense; the average American is far more likely to drive, and to drive much further than his or her overseas counterparts. A lot of American’s have been in accidents, many have been seriously injured, and many know someone who has been killed in a traffic accident. That statistic didn’t surprise me; people are idiots, and an idiot behind the wheel is intrinsically unsafe irrespective of what they do. What struck me wasn’t yet the threat to public safety in traffic, however. What I found interesting is that here is another danger that far too many safety professionals essentially ignore, and in fact, there efforts to remind us to be safe might be making the problem worse.

Keeping yourself “fully present” and focused on the task at hand isn’t always easy. After a hard week working doing repetitive task it’s easy get preoccupied by your weekend plans, a conversation with a coworker, or your last hunting trip. It’s human nature to pass the time by thinking about more pleasant things than the mundane activities of our job (hell, if it were fun they would charge admission instead of paying us to do it). How often have you heard an injured worker explain the cause of the injury as “I just wasn’t thinking”? In fact, they worker most likely WAS thinking, he or she just wasn’t thinking about the job.

It’s tough not to have our mind wander while we are working, but before we conclude that reminding people to stay focus is in itself a distraction. Take the sick and sadistic practice of the child’s safety posters. What kind of demented brute introduces that possibility that mommy and daddy might die at work. “I better draw one hellufa poster.” These reminders to be safe are in themselves distractions, if I’m thinking about what will happen to my spouse and kids if I die at work, I’m not thinking about the job.

So what’s the answer:

· 5S your workspace. 5S is a Japanese management technique aimed at organizing the workplace, but all you need know about it here is get rid of all the clutter—including the dozens of photos, and souvenirs, and sundry crap that you’ve accumulated and that you don’t need to do your job. Your brain is taking in all the stimuli from everything present in your work area. The more you have to process the more easily distracted you become.

· Adopt a Time Management System. Do you have dozens of things you have to remember to do? Do you have too little time to do anything? A good time management system will allow you to forget those things until you have to do them. You will find yourself more productive, less stressed, and less distracted.

· Stop Procrastinating. There is a procrastination society in the U.S… I keep meaning to join. A major source of distraction is putting off tasks. Showing the discipline to get the tasks done on time will stop you from worrying about them later.

· Quit Trying to Multi-Task. Brain research has confirmed that people are incapable of multi-tasking. Those who seem to be good at multi-tasking are really just very good at switching from one task to another. But even those who seem to be good at multi-tasking are far more likely to get distracted and have an accident (jeez as I read that it sounds terrible, like people will be messing themselves if they try too hard to multi-task, maybe that’s the case, but that’s not what I was insinuating.)

· Get Help. If the source of your distraction is a financial crisis, a cheating spouse, or something similarly weighty and tough to avoid thinking about, get help. Many employers offer employee assistance programs for dealing with these kinds of issues, and if they don’t seek counseling—better to deal with the problem than to continue to put yourself and others at risk because your worries.

There really aren’t any easy answers to controlling distractions at work, but given that distractions are so often deadly, it’s critical that we try to minimize distractions and keep our head in the game. There’s more than our performance at stake, it could be a matter of life and death.

La Duke is the author of a weekly safety blog, and is a partner in the Performance Improvement practice at ERM


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