Can’t Focus? 5 Ways to Overcome Distractions at Work

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How often have you or one of your coworkers uttered the phrase, “I wish there were more hours in a day”?

Between work, your commute, the gym, cooking, kids, happy hours, baseball games, knitting, your band, and whatever else it is you try to squeeze in — oh yeah, I almost forgot sleep — it can be hard to accept that 24 hours in a day is all you get.

But acceptance is the first step. The second? Making the most of your time at work so you can get more done in less time. Learning how to maximize your time will lead you to perform better, feel better, and allow you to give your all to the slew of things you do outside of work that make you the human you are.

We get it, though. Sometimes the office can feel like a game of whack-a-mole — you never know where the next distraction will come from. (And it can be stressful as heck.) To help you be more productive at work, here are five tips for how to avoid and overcome distractions at the office.

But first, do a time audit.

The biggest mistake people make when trying to increase their productivity? Not taking the time to learn what it is that distracts them.

Is it email? Twitter? The news? Your boss? These are common distractions we all deal with at some point or another, but what is it that affects you the most?

For one week, keep a log of what you do with your time both inside and outside of work. Time management expert Laura Vanderkam calls it the 168 Hours Challenge. Log your time using a spreadsheet, Evernote, a physical journal — whatever works for you. To determine where you spend your time online, try a time tracker like RescueTime to record how long you spend on certain websites and apps. And at the end of the week, review how you balance different activities at work.

Many of you might be tempted to skip this step because it seems like a time suck. Aren’t we supposed to be saving time, here? My advice: Don’t overlook this one. While logging your time for a full week will take a little extra effort on your part, it’s an investment that’ll teach you an enormous amount about how you actually spend your time — and it could save you hundreds of hours in the long run.

Once you’ve identified what distracts you, it’s time to come up with strategies to help you overcome those distractions. Here are some ideas to get you started.

How to Overcome Distractions at the Office

Tackle the small stuff later.

Your coworker stops by your desk to ask a quick question. A calendar invite comes in and you need to check your schedule. Your phone buzzes — you got mentioned on Twitter! Distractions like these might seem small and insignificant, but they quickly add up over the course of the day.

What’s worse, once distracted, it takes the average person 23 minutes to get back to the original task, according to a study of digital distraction. In other words, tackling small tasks as soon as they come up can seriously interrupt your flow.

“When you’re interrupted, you don’t immediately go back to the task you were doing before you were interrupted,” says Gloria Mark, who spearheaded the study. “There are about two intervening tasks before you go back to your original task, so it takes more effort to reorient back to the original task.”

Also, interruptions change the physical environment. For example, someone has asked you for information and you have opened new windows on your desktop, or people have given you papers that are now arranged on your desk. Often the physical layout of your environment has changed, and it’s harder to reconstruct where you were. So there’s a cognitive cost to an interruption.”

To limit these distractions, HubSpot Growth Marketer Scott Tousley suggests finishing your current project first, and then tackling those tiny interruptions. Or, if you’re working on a long-term project, rotate between periods of work and short periods of rest, during which you can cross those little things off your to-do list.

In the meantime, invest in a good pair of noise-canceling headphones, turn off push notifications on all your devices (including your desktop computer), and put your phone on Do Not Disturb mode.

Block off specific time for email.

Chances are you’re spending way too much time checking your email. According to a report from the McKinsey Global Institute, the average person spends 13 hours a week (28% of their workweek) reading, deleting, sorting, and sending emails.

Sure, many of us have jobs that require responses to emails within a few hours at most, but it’s important to take that literally. You have a few hours to respond to that email, not a few minutes. Approaching email like you need to respond this very minute or the world will end is likely severely limiting your productivity during the day.

One solution to this problem? Email batching. This apporach requires you to tackle email during specific times of day depending on your needs. A schedule like the one below can help you curb your email addiction, limit the time you spend transitioning from task to task, and increase overall productivity.

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Image Credit: Sidekick

Still having trouble? For a more disciplined approach, download the Chrome extension “Block site” to literally block Gmail.com during specific times of day. (Read this blog post to learn how to set this up.)

Schedule in “distraction time.”

There are a lot of different theories and methodologies out there for how to manage work and rest time during a typical workday.

The popular Pomodoro technique, created in the late 1980s, involves dividing up time into 25 minutes of work followed by five minutes of rest. A study by the Draugiem Group found that the employees with the highest productivity spent 52 minutes working, followed by 17 minutes of rest.

The common denominator here? Schedule in “distraction time” where you can focus on something other than work. Researchers from the University of Illinois found that “deactivating and reactivating your goals allows you to stay focused. … When faced with long tasks (such as studying before a final exam or doing your taxes), it is best to impose brief breaks on yourself. Brief mental breaks will actually help you stay focused on your task.”

Block meetings in a row.

Ever had meetings that stopped and started within 30-60 minutes of one another, where you spent most of that awkward, in-between time checking email, reading the news, and haphazardly looking at your notes? That’s lost time that can really cut into your productivity.

So, in the same vein as blocking out time for email and down time, schedule meetings back-to-back wherever possible. “That way, you’re not losing productvitiy between them and trying to get back into the “flow” every other hour,” says Leslie Ye, a writer for HubSpot’s Sales Blog.

(While you’re at it, make sure the meetings on your schedule are ones you actually need to attend.)

Physically remove yourself from distraction.

Sometimes, the best way to avoid distraction is to literally move yourself away from it.

Ginny Soskey, section editor of HubSpot’s Marketing Blog, suggests booking a conference room to get away from coworkers and really get stuff done in a quiet space.

Brittany Leaning, content strategist at HubSpot, finds that getting into the office early — before everyone else arrives — helps her boost productivity. “I like to grab a coffee, find a quiet space, put my feet up, put my headphones on, and pump some classical music,” she says. “Then, I proceed to write my face off until lunch.”

Best-Selling Author Stephen King agrees. In his book On Writing, he strongly recommends that people “close the door” when writing to shut out the rest of the world and let people know you’re working and don’t want to be disturbed.

How do you overcome distractions at the office? Share your tips with us in the comment section.

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