Beat your addiction to distractions at work

It is easy to confuse busy-ness with productivity.

Are you reading this while answering emails on your smartphone? How do you get rid of distractions and concentrate on your work? Read on for six tips to reduce distractions in the office.

Everyone knows the problem: you finish the day exhausted but when you look back you haven’t actually achieved what you wanted.

Instead, you have answered emails, responded to phone calls and texts, and solved other people’s problems. You have not done the strategic thinking your job entails, and staying behind to work extra hours after everyone else has left is not a good solution.

“Distractions at work are a real issue,” says Alison Hill, a psychologist and CEO of Pragmatic Thinking, a behaviour and motivation strategy company. 

“Often, it is not even recognised. It is easy to confuse busy-ness with productivity.”

Looking busy, achieving nothing

Alison Hill, CEO Pragmatic Thinking.

Hill says dashing around the office and jumping from conversation to conversation can look busy, but the real question is whether someone is effective at their job.

“Yes, some people love the buzz of constant activity, but there are plenty of cases where company success comes from careful analysis and considered decisions, and that can require peace and quiet.”

When office design impedes work

In some cases, the physical design of the office can be a problem. Open-plan design is good for communication and transparency but it can easily destroy concentration. An idea that some companies are experimenting with, according to Hill, is setting aside different “zones” for different types of work.

She also recommends new thinking about meetings and discussions with colleagues. She believes that “stand-up” meetings can be effective, if the subject can be dealt with quickly.

“Another option is the walk-and-talk discussion, if you are just dealing with one or two other people,” she says. 

“Get out of the office, walk around the park. It will clear your head and help you all to focus. But – and this is important – leave your phone on the desk. You can live without it for a while.”

Stop emailing everyone

Amber Imber, CEO Inventium.

Amantha Imber, CEO of innovation consulting firm Inventium, identifies technology as a chronic source of distraction. The flood of emails is a huge problem. Because it is easy to copy someone into a message, even if it is only marginally connected to their job, there is a tendency for everyone to do so.

“Managers should encourage people across the company to think twice before hitting the cc tab,” she says.

“Whether it is a formal policy or just presented as a good thing to do, it can really make a difference. Think about it: the time spent responding and the number of people involved – it adds up in an organisation.”

For those wanting to avoid digital distractions, one solution is not to respond to emails as they come in. Instead, set aside particular blocks of time, such as when you arrive at the office, before lunch, and before you leave at night, to respond.

Turn off email notifications

Coupled with this is another strategy: turn off the email notifications signal on your smartphone, laptop or computer. Even if you are not going to answer immediately, the knowledge that there is an email there can itself be a distraction. The same can be applied to phone calls and texts.

“Many people don’t know that there is a way to turn off the notifications beeper,” says Imber. “Well, there is. That one push of a button can have a critical impact on productivity.”

If you are going to remove yourself from the hubbub to focus on a task, it is important to inform your colleagues. That way, they can understand and adjust their expectations about receiving an immediate response.

Professional Development: Using your time effectively: learn how to meet targets, improve your productivity and maintain focus through effective time management.

Dedicating time and space

For people who are self-employed or are otherwise working from home, there can be a different set of distractions. This is particularly the case if the work is not particularly enjoyable. It is easy to find yourself wasting time on netsurfing or household tasks.

“A good idea is to have a timer you can set to, say, an hour,” Hill suggests. “Just the act of doing it is important, and it helps to keep you organised.”

There are apps you can get to stop you from looking at non-work websites but that is really just treating a symptom, she adds. To avoid self-distraction, you need to be clear on why you are doing this work and how it fits into your day. Making a task list can be another useful step.

Imber points to the importance of having a dedicated work space, rather than just the kitchen table. This acts to cut out the distractions of the household and helps to build good work practices.

She also emphasises the value of planned time management, whether you are self-employed or working in a corporate environment. She divides her day between “maker time” in the morning and “manager time” in the afternoon.

“In the end, productivity is about focus,” Imber says. “Give yourself, and others, the time for proper thinking. It is thinking, ideas and innovation, and not rushing about, that makes a company successful.”

6 tips to avoid distractions

  • Establish a quiet space away from the office traffic
  • Set aside specific times to respond to messages rather than as soon as they arrive
  • Turn off the notifications beeper for phone and emails
  • Inform your colleagues when you need time to focus on a project
  • Plan your day with a task list
  • Make sure you know the difference between busy-ness and genuine productivity

Read next: 5 ways behavioural science can help you have a better workday


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December 2018
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