An issue facing almost all office workers at one time or another, that doesn’t get the attention it deserves, is workplace distractions. The modern office is filled with them – from email dings, to more open office plans that mean you hear every conversation, to a cycle of never-ending meetings. One study reported** that nearly 3 out of 4 workers admit they feel distracted on the job, with 16% claiming they’re almost always distracted.
So, we know it’s a problem, but what do we do about it? I have read some interesting fixes to some of the most prevalent distractions. Here’s what I found out:
Today’s open office plans have increased collaboration among teams, but they have also increased the noise level of the average office substantially. How can employees get the quiet they need to complete focused work tasks?
- One idea that I thought was ingenious was to wear headphones. Whether playing music, or just playing a white noise app, headphones will drown out the worst of the noise and be an unspoken indicator to others that you do not want to be disturbed.
- Another option is to move to a quiet area when you need to focus on work. This could mean reserving the conference room, or asking management if they can create some areas just for employees to go to for a quiet atmosphere (perhaps repurposing empty offices/etc.).
Dealing with email is unavoidable for the modern office worker, but it can easily take over our whole day – with us getting nothing else done. How can we take back power over email?
- Complete some focused work first before opening up your email in the morning. Most workers make checking their email the first task of the day. This leads to answering those email requests and is the beginning of reactively dealing with all of the inbox demands. Instead, give yourself an hour (or at least a half hour) in the morning to focus on your top priority project before diving into your inbox. Often first thing in the morning is our most productive time – and with everyone else busy with their inboxes, you probably also won’t be interrupted during this time!
- Turn off email notification, or at least mute them. Once we are able to pry ourselves away from email, don’t immediately get pulled back in with the next “ping.” If you get notifications on your phone, turn these off and mute your computer’s notification setting. That way you can focus on what you deem most important – not what your computer thinks is important.
Smartphone addiction is a real thing. We are constantly checking test messages, social media, and even our inbox right on these snazzy little devices. However, just like our email inbox, these little monsters can quickly take over our lives – and our work day.
- As with our email, turn off or silence notifications, that way you won’t constantly be reminded that you just got a text, or an email, or someone updated their Facebook status.
- Make the workplace a “social media free zone” – You may not be able to leave the cell phone behind while working (However, if you can do so!), but you can limit its impact on your concentration. It may take some will-power, but commit to only checking social media during scheduled breaks, at lunch or after work.
Our friendly, well-meaning co-workers aren’t intentionally trying to sabotage our workday, but they do so nonetheless. With every “knock-knock” and “did you hear the latest” interruption it takes the average worker 25 minutes to return to the original task++ . What can we do about this?
- A great way to signal that you do not want to be disturbed is with, yes, a signal. Departments can agree that if a red flag is hanging up in a cubicle, or if the door is closed in a quiet-zone office space, that the person does not want to be disturbed.
- Again, that ingenious set of headphones is an obvious signal that you are busy and don’t want interruptions. There may need to be a discussion in the office first to make this an “official signal” so that people don’t get the urge to just tap you on the shoulder to get your attention.
This is a distraction that I didn’t think was such a big deal until I read about it and realized that I am a big victim of this distraction as well. Clutter is a personally created distraction. When we are trying to focus on a project, that stack of papers in the corner calls to us to “just look through them” and we never seem to get to the original project that was our highest priority. That calendar list pinned to the wall is an ever present reminder that we have that meeting coming us and, “Shouldn’t I just do a little prep now to get ready?”
- So file/store/put away ALL paperwork and lists off of your desk. This will eliminate the temptation to focus on a “more interesting project” than the hard one you need to focus on.
- If you need the “physical file” to remind you to work on something, instead make an electronic “task list” of all the physical files that you can refer to in between your focused work times.
- Creating clean space also instills a feeling of calm in people. Instead of looking at your desk and thinking, “Ugh! Look at all the work I have to get done.” you can now look at your desk and feel accomplished and ready to get started on that next big task!
Finally, many employees see meetings as their biggest distraction to “getting real work done.” It is unlikely that we can totally eliminate meetings altogether, but there are ways to make them more productive and perhaps make sure that we only meet when it is really necessary.
- All meetings should have a written agenda, a set time limit and a timekeeper. Meetings with an agenda move much more smoothly, and if the meeting coordinator cannot come up with an agenda, or the agenda looks weak, then it will be obvious that this meeting does not need to happen.
- Record action items and assign owners to each one. By coming up with action items tied to each agenda item, and assigning a specific person to complete the task, project owners will be held accountable and meetings will be more productive.
- If meetings really have no “actionable items” and are only really information dispersing sessions, then consider whether a meeting is really necessary. Might a group email work just as well?
Hopefully these tips have given you some food for thought. I know I am going to try harder to keep my desk clutter-free, and focus less on my emails and more on getting my priority-one projects done. Let me know how you handle distractions in your offices.
10 Distractions That Kill Workplace Productivity
By Chad Brooks June 12, 2015
**Distractions Are Costing Companies Millions. Here's Why 66 Percent of Workers Won't Talk About It
By Wanda Thibodeaux March 22, 2018
++Here Are 13 Workplace Distractions Robbing You of Productivity (And How to Fix Them)
By Jeff Murphy Dec, 19, 2016