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Eliminate distractions at work for your most productive day yet

October 12, 2022 - 14 min read

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Why are you distracted at work?

How not to get distracted at work

Manage your distractions with action

You wake up every weekday with the best intentions: brush your teeth, get ready for work, then sit at your desk and blaze through your task list.

But then the Slack messages roll in. You spend an hour putting out fires, then you have to run to an hour-long meeting (which runs closer to an hour and a half). Afterward, your boss calls you for a “quick” post-meeting debrief. And before you know it, half the day is gone. You haven’t even ticked off the first item on your list.

Disruptionsonly compound if you’re working from home. In the early days of the pandemic, 42% of Americans said binge-watching TV shows was their greatest distraction while working remotely. And, with many schools closed, parents stepped up to entertain their kids and help guide them through online courses — adding an extra layer of stress to an already hectic workday.

When your day feels out of control, finding that blissful block of productivity is difficult. But if you can manage it, you’ll complete your tasks with time to spare.

That’s the dream, anyway. Let’s see what we can do to make it come true. Here’s our guide on how to avoid distractions while working.

Why are you distracted at work?

First thing first: if you’re distracted at work, you’re not alone. There’s no need to feel ashamed for being unfocused sometimes. In fact, 98% of workers say they experience 3–4 interruptions per day.

A few common reasons likely cause these disruptions to your productivity. Here are some of the most common distractions in the workplace:

1. Your co-workers

Difficult colleagues come in many forms. Sometimes, they’re a little too friendly, spending more time chatting with you than doing their work. They could also be toxic and rude. Their negativity can leave you feeling drained, making it difficult to focus on your tasks.

2. Pointless meetings

Meetings are useful ways to sync up with your team. But they can also be a time suck and derail your day.

Pre-pandemic, in a survey of 182 senior managers:

  • 65% said meetings keep them from completing their work
  • 71% said meetings are unproductive and inefficient
  • 64% said meetings come at the expense of deep thinking
  • 62% said meetings miss opportunities to bring the team closer together

These numbers are pretty unflattering. Thankfully, the pandemic didn’t make things worse — but it didn’t make them better. In 2021:

  • Employees spent 10% more time in meetings every week
  • On average, meetings were 20% shorter than pre-pandemic
  • Employees’ average meeting count per week rose from 5.9 to 6.9 meetings

We have shorter meetings, but we have more of them. If those meetings aren’t productive or scheduled thoughtfully, employees face more disruptions to their workflow.

3. Hunger and dehydration

Working while hungry can eat into your productivity, causing you to lose focus and energy throughout the day. Plus, it can make you less than pleasant to work with (i.e. irritable or “hangry”). 

The kind of food you eat matters, too. Greasy fries and chocolate bars are okay once in a while, but the fats and sugars will leave you feeling worse than before. Whole grains, fruits, and vegetables are the way to go for a productive day at work.

You should also be mindful of your water intake. As little as 1% dehydration can cost you valuable cognitive performance. Drinking plenty of water throughout the day will help you stay focused.

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4. Doing too much at once

Multitasking is a myth. You may feel like you’re doing multiple things at once, but you’re actually moving your attention from one item to the next. And every time you do, your brain needs up to 15 minutes to re-orient itself — opening you up to potential distractions. This is how “I’ll just quickly check my emails” devolves into “I bought six shirts on Amazon.” 

5. Stress, anxiety, and depression

Your mental health has a role to play, too:

A mental health professional can help you cope with depression and anxiety. They can work with you to develop a treatment plan to have you feel better. They can help you identify your stressors and develop stress-management techniques to get you through the day.

If you experience ongoing and chronic manifestations of mental illness, consider disclosing your disability to your place of work so they can take the necessary steps to support you.

6. Remote work distractions

man-typing-on-laptop-with-ginger-cat-how-to-avoid-distractions

As many of us learned during the pandemic, working from home comes with potential distractions. These include:

  • Family. Your partner asks you something, your kid needs a snack, or your parents walk in during a meeting. Being close to your loved ones is great, but they can also distract you while you’re trying to work.
  • Pets. Some pets are low-maintenance. But if your cat refuses to leave your keyboard or a puppy wets the floor, they can easily pull your attention away from your to-do list.
  • Chores. During your breaks, it feels good to clean your workspace or complete small chores around the house. But cleaning quickly becomes a tool for procrastination.
  • TV or videos. You might be tempted to throw on a basketball game or a YouTube video to create some white noise for your work environment. But be careful: you can be sucked into the action when you should really be working.

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How not to get distracted at work

Learning how to stay focused at work takes time and effort. But with some basic techniques, you can limit physical and digital distractions.

Here are some tips:

1. Keep records

Write down the tasks you accomplish at work and note when distractions pop up in a log. Eventually, a pattern will emerge, and you’ll learn to stay ahead of potential interruptions. For example, if your boss requests a progress report every afternoon, try sending it in early. Completing this task on your own terms will help you control your schedule and work environment.

2. Set your priorities straight

Prioritize important tasks, then choose one or two of them to complete. You can rest easier knowing the urgent work is done, even if you didn’t get to the smaller tasks on your list.

3. Block your time

The Pomodoro technique is a time-management tool that divides your calendar into 25-minute blocks. Each time block is devoted to working on a particular task, followed by a short break. This approach can make tasks feel less daunting, so you can stay focused even when you’re working on stressful projects.

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4. Complete one task at a time

The solution to chronic multitasking is to focus on one item at a time. This will increase your likelihood of achieving flow and reduce distractions.

5. Limit your correspondence time

Checking emails and Slack messages can consume your day if you let it. Try turning off your push notifications and only checking your messages at certain hours. If it’s truly urgent, they’ll find a different way to contact you.

6. Take breaks

Working too many hours can take a toll. If you don’t make time for a break, your body will take one for you. Use lulls to stretch, move, socialize, or drink a cup of tea. Scheduling your rest will help you relax on your own terms to stay focused when you need to.

7. Control your smartphone

smiling-mature-businessman-holding-smartphone-how-to-avoid-distractions

Americans spend almost 2.5 hours per day on their cell phone, accessing content unrelated to their job. 

And in some ways, that’s by design. The infinite scrolling in your LinkedIn newsfeed means your content never “ends.” And the lack of clear endings means your brain has no markers for when to stop reading.

You can mitigate the distracting nature of your smartphone by:

  • Turning off as many notifications as possible. Setting your phone to “Do Not Disturb” will keep your phone from buzzing. If you're concerned about emergencies, you can program your phone to let important phone calls and text messages from certain contacts through.
  • Hiding distracting apps from your home screen. You’ll be less tempted to use them if they aren’t the first thing you see. Move your favorite apps onto another page or wipe them from your app display altogether.
  • Changing your screen to grayscale. Apps pine for your attention with colorful logos and red notification badges. A black and white screen softens their allure.

Manage your distractions with action

Knowing how to avoid distractions is an essential skill in the workplace. But it takes time to build and implement these habits. You’ll have to train yourself to prioritize tasks appropriately, stay hydrated, and set boundaries with your loved ones and colleagues.

It takes a minimum of 18 days to settle into a routine. Within that timeframe, basic habits like time blocking and muting your cell phone will become second nature. As you slowly implement our other anti-distraction measures, you’ll take control of your workday.

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Published October 12, 2022

Shonna Waters, PhD

Vice President of Alliance Solutions

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