THE BLOG
03/25/2013 05:00 pm ET Updated May 25, 2013

Productivity Tricks to Beat the March Madness

If you find yourself going a little "mad" in March, know you're not alone. March Madness, the NCAA Division I championship college basketball tournament, pits the best teams in the country against each other. It's an exciting competition -- one many of your workers will blow off assignments to follow closely.

Along with March Madness comes betting, dreaming up the perfect bracket, and ignoring productivity. In fact, about 58 percent of your workers will take part in at least one friendly wager before the month of March is over. For employers, March is likely to make them mad over how much money they're losing thanks to worker distraction.

During the first two days alone, companies lost as much as $134 million per day as distracted workers spend more time on their brackets than on their work. This can lead to as much as $1 billion paid in wages to distracted workers more worried about their favorite NCAA team than about the big project you just gave them.

So how do you get your office to focus on work instead of just basketball? First, be honest with yourself and accept March Madness is here to stay. No matter what you do, your workers will be sneaking in some time to catch up on college hoops. Cracking down on basketball entirely is more likely to hurt your company culture than get you real results. And you've spent time and effort in the hiring process, connecting with candidates in person and through video interviews, to build an attractive company culture you certainly don't want to harm.

Instead, focus on how you can make your workforce more productive and efficient, so no one drops the ball while watching basketball. Here are a few smart productivity tips to keep your office moving:

Focus on Focus
During the tournament, you might hope your workers have the willpower to resist the siren allure of college hoops to focus on their workload. However, according to the theory of ego-depletion, willpower might just be a limited resource. Like many other limited resources, if you strain willpower too far, you're likely to use it up.

So what should you do when you want workers to check email instead of the score? Encourage workers to save their willpower to focus on the most important tasks first and foremost. Dr. Anders Ericsson, the pioneer of the "10,000-hour rule" to become an expert in anything, studied the habits of elite violinists. What he found was the best musicians took part in something called deliberate practice, where they were more wholly focused on the task at hand.

Instead of asking workers to be physically present and avoid checking scores, encourage workers to focus on big projects and tackle challenges with their whole attention. Smaller tasks, like answering endless emails or completing one small item on the to-do list, can wait for later. By focusing all their energy on the most important and challenging projects, workers maintain focus and make the most of their productivity.

Let Employees Catch March Madness -- But Then Get Back To Work
According to stats from last year, March Madness is a huge time suck for your workforce. Last year alone, the basketball tournament took an average of 90 minutes out of each work day for more than 2.5 million workers. In total, workers will spend 8.4 million hours following the games from the office, with 56 percent planning to dedicate at least one hour to the madness during the first two days.

So how do you combat such a huge time waster? Maybe the answer is that you shouldn't. Breaks are actually not bad for productivity, and in fact might actually result in a more productive workforce.

A study by the Federal Aviation Administration showed short breaks between longer working sessions actually resulted in a 16 percent improvement in awareness and focus. If willpower, the ability to intently focus on something and block out other distractions, is a limited resource, then it makes sense how short breaks would actually improve productivity.

In fact, according to the study of ultradian rhythms, we can focus for about 90 to 120 minutes before our productivity and attention span lags. Then workers should ideally take a short break of no more than 15 to 20 minutes to recharge.

During March, perhaps instead of answering emails or looking up cat pictures, workers can use their breaks to check in with the NCAA tournament. But make sure employees are only taking short breaks, not watching the games all day.

March Madness can really take a toll on your productivity if you let it. By making sure employees use their time more productively, however, you can worry less about the breaks they take to work on their brackets.

What are some ways to keep your workers more productive during March Madness? Sound off in the comments!

Josh Tolan is the CEO of Spark Hire, a video powered hiring network that connects job seekers and employers through video resumes and online interviews. Connect with him and Spark Hire on Facebook and Twitter.