The Real Reason You Don’t Get Work Done

A few weeks ago I borrowed the office of a friend, who let me use for an hour while I was in-between meetings. Soon I overheard some chatter next door. It went something like this:

“…so then I arrived for the procedure and the doctors weren’t ready for me…and then they didn’t even apologize. And then I had to fill out my insurance information all over again…and then…”

As the rant continued I took a break and peeked in. I saw our medical victim standing in the office of a co-worker, who was clearly praying for an unexpected phone call to rescue her. The look on her face said it all.


fake interest

In the end, neither of us got much done that hour.

Later that day I tried again to get some things done, this time while working in one of my Starbucks “satellite offices.” I finished everything in 45 minutes.

It’s a common thought that the office (and the meeting in general), where everyone comes together in a single space, is the key to getting things done efficiently. Having both worked in one and been on my own I can say this…

Not. Even Close.

Why? Because the office space, which is about bringing people together…is about bringing people together.

And what do people need? Human interaction…which is why:

  • Mondays find us in the break room first thing, discussing our weekend adventures
  • Meetings begin with social chit-chat while waiting for people to arrive, which continues after they do
  • Our stories and opinions get interjected into business discussions, throwing the topic way off-track

It turns our need to talk, laugh and connect often comes first.

funny office pic

None of this is bad. It’s normal. Relationships, after all, are one of the most important and delightful parts of living.


Let’s not kid ourselves about our offices and meetings. Let’s not pretend that our personal needs don’t often trump our business needs.  Let’s not pretend we’re getting it all done efficiently. Let’s accept it and feel less frustrated.

But, let’s find also the balancing act:

  • Of helping people get their human needs met…and the business needs met
  • Of meeting the morale needs of our staff…and the expectations from our bosses
  • Of allowing for social interaction that’s a little less than those who want a lot…and a little more than those who want a little

Putting this balance into practice, of course, is a whole lot easier said than done. The first thing to do is become aware of your own social interaction needs, and recognize that others are different.

Then, plan ahead. If you need lots of interaction, figure out how to get some of it met outside of work. Be sensitive to others.

If you don’t need lots of interaction, know it’s still part of the office/meeting deal and so things will be less efficient then you want. Plan your deadlines accordingly. Be sensitive to others.

All of this being said – and as delightful and necessary as human interaction may be – sometimes the chit chat just isn’t possible. The deadlines loom and people don’t get your hints. You need to get things done but really don’t want to offend anybody.

How to tackle this sticky problem?

A few ideas:

  • When you get to a meeting or someone pops in, tell them immediately that you’re on limited time and need to get back to work soon. Give an actual end-time if you can.
  • When chatter goes on too long, stand up to break the pace. Nicely back away from folks and tell them you need to go.
  • If you’re trapped in your own office, stand up anyway. Taking a quick walk down the hall or visit the bathroom.
  • Put stuff on your extra chair. People can’t sit and get comfy if there’s nowhere to sit and get comfy.
  • Close your office door if you’ve got one. If needed, let your boss know the reason ahead of time
  • Work outside of the building if possible. Find your own satellite office, then don’t abuse it.

Pick your favorite strategy or two and start there, and do remember that interactions aren’t just necessary for us humans, but can be quite enjoyable. So enjoy them.

And just accept that there will be times when someone has a bad medical experience…and needs to tell you all about it.

So practice your game face.

fake interest

This week…

Accept the truth about the office.

Examine your own human interaction needs, know everyone is different, and make your plan to balance things and get it all done.


Now, go do good…and do it well.


7 responses to “The Real Reason You Don’t Get Work Done”

  1. Steve Kepher Avatar
    Steve Kepher

    Nice post and all too true. We are all (hopefully) social beings and the challenge is finding the balance between interaction with colleagues that is not mission/job connected but needed because we are human – and keeping your focus on the job. The person who stands in your office “sharing” their tales of doctor’s appointments or weekend adventures is probably the same person who fills their office with personal “stuff” to make it more home-like – toys, personal mementos, artwork, stuffed animals, etc. One lesson I learned from my first job – as an account manager at a large ad agency – never bring more to the office than you can carry out in one trip. ‘Cause one day you’ll have to.

    1. Deirdre Maloney Avatar
      Deirdre Maloney

      Thanks for the great reply, Steve…and I’ve heard the same thing about the box… (one office I worked in had a “no fish tank in the office” policy for just this reason). I’ve found that those who like to share stories are also the kind individuals who get everyone to sign the birthday and get-well cards…gotta love ’em!

  2. Melanie Avatar

    Deirdre: I couldn’t agree more! I love all of your posts. They are so thoughtful, insightful and inspiring! Thank you for taking the time to share your thought processes with all of us and for delivering them in such a creative and articulate way.
    All best,

    1. Deirdre Maloney Avatar
      Deirdre Maloney

      Why thank you, Melanie – and thanks to YOU for taking the time to read them! Seriously, there’s lots of good stuff out there, so I really appreciate that these make it on the list…and I’m so glad you agree with this one!

  3. Erica Avatar

    So funny…as I was trying to read this week’s post I had a co-worker walk in and, without so much as an “excuse me,” ask my opinion on a new littler box for her cat…I got to practice my “game face” right then and there!

    As much as these interactions can be taxing at times, I find the relationships that result to be very beneficial. The “littler box” lady, for example, is also the person who helps get things signed by our CEO, so when I need her help she’s always happy to oblige 🙂

    Thanks for the great tips!

    1. Deirdre Maloney Avatar
      Deirdre Maloney

      Nothing like practicing in the moment, yes? I agree with you about many of these individuals…there is nothing bad about them. It can just be tricky to get work done when the stories (or kitty box questions) take up so much time! Thanks for the funny and timely comment…

  4. Patty Costa Avatar
    Patty Costa

    Thank you Deirdre for such openess and honesty. I really like the idea of setting the limits before the conversation (Like I have to meet a friend in a half hour). It makes it easier for me to cut if off gracefully. Sometimes I make unjoyable phone calls when I have to be somewhere or THEY have to be somewhere to cut some of the gab.