Do Not Click This Link -- 14 Ways to Manage Distractions at Work

by Staff - Original publish date: November 20, 2013

Distractions are Everywhere, So Know Your Enemy

Is this a good time? We can come back later if you’re in the middle of something. We know dealing with potential distractions can really slice into your workday In a recent survey, 64% admitted to wasting time at the office on a daily basis -- and we weren’t counting any staff meetings. It happens. The typical work setting is ripe with potential distractions. Can’t help that.

But we do have a few ideas on how to manage them. Whether it’s a constantly ringing phone or incessantly chatty co-worker, there are work-arounds that actually work. So, if you have a few minutes, read on. 

1. Internal vs External

The first step is to determine the source of the distractions. Are they blaring from two desks over, or from somewhere in your head? 

The latter may require an out-of-the-office fix. Are personal problems clinging to your hemline in the morning? Consider what steps might help you to leave them at the revolving door. Counseling? A financial planner? The key move is to quiet the things that will drain peak work performance.

Your employer has bought the use of your brain from nine to five. So make sure it’s disengaged from anything else that will burn minutes.

2. Ready, Set, Go

Are you prepared? Or do you need an update from Bill, a file from Sandy or a skinny mocha latte to make 8am feel more like noon? 

You can do this. And, you kind of have to do this. Sharpen your own pencils. Locate your own research information. Arm yourself for inevitable success. Frankly, no one else is obsessing over whether the necessary reports were delivered to you. Sure, they should be. But seriously, if you need something then go find it.

Prepare yourself to do your job well before you settle in at your desk.

3. Creature Comforts

How’s that 72-degree climate controlled temperature hitting you today? If you’re having frequent “too hot/too cold” Goldilocks moments, they should no longer surprise you. Be prepared with a jacket or sweater. Is your chair cranked to a comfortable height? Do you need to elevate your feet or adjust your computer screen? Would you care for some frozen sugared grapes? Just asking. Not offering.

Little details can have big effects. If you aren’t comfortable, body and mind will rebel and send you off on non-essential errands to alleviate that discomfort. Your subconscious may alter your priorities for the wrong reasons.

4. Look Busy

This is not an impress the boss move, although it certainly can’t hurt.

Here’s the deal: if you appear to be unengaged, someone will invariably seek to engage you in conversation, her project or a bagel run. So cut out the slouching in front of your computer screen. It’s bad for your back anyway.

If you need to enter into deep thought, aim it away from the doorway. In fact, look at the opposite wall while holding an open folder. If Joe can’t make eye contact, he’s less likely to interrupt with, “have a minute?” Now, flow with that “busy” mode and get things done.

5. Visualize Your Success

While you’re having that deep thought moment, include a mental picture of how it will feel when you nail next week’s presentation, exceed your sales goal or implement the improved HR plan. Add inspiring background music and crowd applause, but note that those embellishments are for motivational purposes only and that your actual results may vary. 

Picturing future triumphs invariably builds momentum. Who wouldn’t want to hurdle accounting and race past deadlines to get to that podium? So use the image for inspiration and then focus on making it real.

6. Practice Your Free Throw

Quit crumpling up those sales reports into aerodynamic wads. We were speaking metaphorically. Top tier athletes focus on key elements of their routines to create consistent results. “Performance cues”, thoughts, feelings or images that enhance execution of a process, can be used to your benefit at work as well. 

Arrange necessary materials on your desk before you begin. Take a sip of coffee. Stretch your back. Focus on the clicking generated as you type a report, or the feeling of organizational bliss when spreadsheet details are populating. These are your cues. The rest is crowd noise. Ignore the vuvuzelas.

7. Establish Priority

Rate projects according to impact, effort and due dates. Next, reduce each to a sequence of tasks and events. No need to add in the number of steps to get to accounting by way of the printer, but jotting “Finish sales reports” onto a desktop note is too vague and gives your brain excuses to spin in multiple ineffective directions. 

With identified sequences and dates, construct a timeline to your successes. But remember this is no “one and done”. Update weekly or more often if needed. 

8. Block Out Background Noise

When background noise shifts from a low buzz into conversational tidbits you’d rather not hear, fight back.

If ear buds are acceptable, use them with or without music (bonus: they’re also an interruption inhibitor). If this is not a viable option, insert standard earplugs. They look better than your fingers and work so well, you may need to face visitors at your doorway or post an explanatory sign. If possible, invest in a desktop white noise machine.

Silence may be golden, but a rushing waterfall or blowing wind beats hearing about Jan’s love life again.

9. Deflect & Defer

We’re not suggesting you pull out a whistle and start waving people into left hand turns away from your door, but if interruptions are frequent, you might need to do a little directing.

It can be as simple as “That sounds interesting. Want to chat about it at lunch?” Or, “I’ll be able to absorb the details a little better after I finish (this report/making phone calls/using up all my other excuses). Request emailed details instead of verbal listings or collaborate online to avoid wasting time. 

10. Maintain a Balance

Depending on your intellectual gifting, it may be tempting to tackle multiple creative -- or conversely -- organizational tasks in a row. It might seem smart to battle through tedious chores at the same time. But give your brain a break.

Alternating between the tedious and the -- dare we say -- fun parts of your job will keep you more engaged and less likely to get sucked into a diversion. Similarly, if you’re able to mix up the solo work time with your face-to-face interactions, it will help keep boredom (and annoyance) at bay.

11. Run & Hide

Just as the severity of a coffee spill seems to rise in correlation with the importance of your next meeting, distractions escalate when you need to focus most. If you simply can’t concentrate well in the office, wave the white flag and look for creative alternatives.

Can you borrow a conference room? Or make use of a nearby library? Some like working at home, although others find it even more distracting to be surrounded by dirty laundry, the leaky dishwasher and countless other household chores that still need to be finished. Choose your best option to accomplish your best work. 

12. Unplug & Tune Out

OK. This is going to hurt a little. Brace yourself. 

Silence your phone and disconnect from the Internet. At the least, set your email to download at intervals instead of on a continual basis. Shifting focus takes time, so limit the number of times you need to relocate your thoughts. Dam the data flow for a few minutes. Create a serene oasis in which to tackle the most demanding items on your agenda.

Relish your temporary gigabyte barricade, and your brain will begin to adopt this as a performance cue to focus and achieve. 

13. Get Back on Track

Occasionally, you may find that time has passed without your full participation. Oops. Did you really just spend 10 minutes replaying last night’s little disagreement with your spouse? And now you’re agitated and frustrated at him (because he is so clearly wrong) and yourself (because you should have been reconciling figures)? 

Find a neutral focal point. It can be a spot on your wall, a picture, or even nothing at all if you close your eyes. Now, focus on one of your performance cues and use that to propel yourself back onto a productive path. 

14. Reward Yourself

With nerves of elastic, you stretched your focus to manage the disturbances inherent to a populated space. You tuned out the crowd noise, channeled the chats and reeled your brain back in when it got caught up in planning your weekend. You deftly dodged time wasters and knocked off some essential tasks. 

So, go ahead and stretch your legs. Refill your water bottle. Look out the window and admire the view just beyond those rooftop air conditioning units. With no “I should be…”  thoughts to yank you elsewhere for the moment, the mental relaxation should feel even more, well, relaxing.

Manage Distractions to Rise Above Them

Distractions are part of a dynamic environment. Training oneself to block out the non-essentials is the game changer that sets apart the achievers from the merely talented and skilled. Disciplining yourself puts you in the manager’s chair. This necessary filter will help you create the mental and physical environment in which you work best. 

Fortunately, this self-discipline is in your own best interest. And, as you practice these skills, the rewarding results will pull you into a much better cycle for success than the distractions of that dinging elevator and your pencil tapping, gum cracking officemates.

Recommended Reading

We hope you enjoyed this article. As an added bonus, the editorial staff would like to recommend these related books:

  • Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, & Working Smarter All Day Long
  • 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done
  • Do More Great Work: Stop the Busywork, Start the Work that Matters
  • Defeating the 8 Demons of Distraction: Proven Strategies to Increase Productivity and Decrease Stress
  • Find Your Focus Zone: An Effective New Plan to Defeat Distraction & Overload