Have you ever texted while driving? Has your parent, partner, or friend ever told you to put your phone away during dinner? Do you find yourself daydreaming when you have a lot on your plate? These habits are distractions, and they’re more common than you may realize.
Distraction occurs frequently in daily life, but it’s a real enemy at work. According to one UC Irvine study, it takes an average of 25 minutes to refocus after a distraction, which can really add up in terms of time (and, ultimately, money) losses if distractions are frequent throughout the day.
If you count yourself among those who experience significant distractions during work hours, there are things you can do to fix your working behavior. Keep reading to learn how to identify what distracts you—and how to turn those distractions into motivation.
Know What Distracts You
Before you try to tackle your distractors, you have to identify them. Here are some common distractions at work that you might face.
- Noise and routine workplace sounds
- Phones and other connected devices
- Slack or other office messengers
- Sensitivity to certain physical sensations (hunger, restlessness, etc.)
- An overbooked to-do list with pressing obligations
- Frequent clock-checking
- Frequent ineffective meetings
The next few times you catch yourself avoiding work, try to make a note of what caused your focus to wander. Chances are it’s something on that list.
Turn Distraction Into Motivation
Once you’ve figured out which common distractors you’re especially susceptible to, you can take action against them. Turn distraction into motivation with the eight tips below.
1) Switch from distracting noise to motivating sound
Headphones are your friends, especially in an open floorplan, where they can block out the noise of chatty coworkers. But what you listen to can also affect your ability to work. You might want to listen to podcasts but find that spoken words can disrupt concentration.
Instead, try listening to meditation music or soothing sounds without lyrics. White or pink noise is also a popular choice for especially intensive tasks. Use them responsibly, and your headphones could be the key to improving your focus.
2) Productivity hack your smartphone
Is your smartphone smart enough to not bug you with a bunch of alerts while you’re working?
Probably not. With all the games and social apps it puts at your fingertips, your phone can be a big productivity killer.
It doesn’t have to be, though. Try setting limits on which apps you can use during work hours: use your phone to handle business communications like checking emails or Slack, set the alarm feature to keep yourself on schedule, or take quick notes during a meeting.
You can even find work-related apps that help you with expense tracking or guide you in professional development.
If there are apps that drastically affect your attention, consider uninstalling them (or at least commit to not using them at work). And for the times that you really need to work, you can turn on Do Not Disturb mode. iPhone has a great setting that turns off most alerts for a set amount of time, and Android has a similar function too.
3) Set chat boundaries and refocus wandering conversations
Sure, everyone loves cat gifs. But when a few gifs become an hour-long chat, they can really hurt your productivity. So if you’re going to use a messaging system like Slack, don’t give it the ability to derail your productivity every few minutes—instead, optimize it to minimize how often it forces your concentration away from the task at hand.
You can also use messaging platforms for collaboration: ask your coworkers for suggestions or help on the project that you are working on, or set up a quick, informal brainstorming meeting. Gathering various perspectives from different people is always helpful. And if the conversation turns to a thread of YouTube videos, let your coworkers know you’ll be signing out for a bit in order to focus.
4) Know which tools help rein in your attention
Plenty of old-school workers think digital devices aren’t helpful when working, while younger workers tend to think digital tools are essential. But the truth is, in most cases, tool efficacy comes down to how they’re used. If they’re implemented poorly, they create one more thing for you to try to juggle as you multitask.
So get to know which tools can help you keep your focus on a single task, and use them wisely. Turn on Focus Mode in Microsoft Word, or download an extension for productivity. Tech can be a big source of distraction, but it can also keep you on task.
5) Reward focus with a few minutes of fun distraction
We’ve all had those days where we feel too hungry to focus, or too enticed by nice weather to stay cooped up at a desk all day. But in a lot of cases, those feelings are based more on wants than needs—they’re reasons to avoid getting to work.
Luckily, a small mindset change can work wonders here. Try treating those small distractions—a candy bar, a quick walk outside—as a reward rather than a necessity. Set a realistic goal, like replying to all of your open email threads, and then treat yourself once you’ve hit it.
6) Plan time to resolve your big distractors
Some distractions aren’t exactly fun, and they wouldn’t be great to use as a reward for some serious focus. In those cases, book yourself some time to face the distractions.
Is your cluttered desk making it hard to find some forms you need? Use part of your lunch break to clean it up. Worried about traffic during your rush hour ride home? See if you can adjust your schedule to travel outside of that window. Have too many web browsers open on your computer screen?
Take a few minutes to bookmark any unnecessary ones, and revisit them later.
Once you’ve taken care of the really problematic distractions, you can start working without worrying that they’ll creep back in when you’re on the clock.
7) Turn the clock into a timer
You keep looking at the clock unintentionally—you thought an hour had passed, but just a few minutes have ticked by. And even though you have tons of tasks to do by the end of today, your frequent clock glances keep pulling your focus. What can you do (apart from getting rid of all the clocks near you)?
Try using the clock as a timer to ignite a little competition. Take a look at the clock, pick a task you want to achieve, then see just how fast you can get the job done. By setting your own miniature deadlines, you’ll be too busy working to watch the minute hand creep along.
8) Hold effective, well-scheduled meetings
Meetings exist in some form in nearly every workspace, but a lot of them aren’t as effective as they could be. And having ineffective meetings can be a huge hindrance to your daily productivity.
So, an obvious fix here is to make ineffective meetings more effective—but what is an effective meeting?
Here are some strategies to hold an effective meeting:
- Assign a leader of the meeting who will keep the topic of the meeting so that people won’t waste time unintentionally shifting to off-topic.
- Be aware of the meeting’s time limit, and move promptly through the agenda.
- Assign a person to record information from the meeting.
On top of staying on task, try to group meetings if possible in order to preserve a few bigger blocks of time in your schedule. Even the most effective meetings can throw you off if you’ve got 15–30 minutes of downtime between each of them—that’s too long to do nothing, but far from enough time to get into a groove.
You can’t completely eliminate all potential distractions in the workplace, but you can change your approach to help them work in your favor. Know what distracts you, then use the suggestions here to get your productivity back on track.