Managing Your Work Environment
How often are you distracted at work?
It's a question that's almost laughable, right? Most of us are distracted several times, if not dozens of times, every day.
We get emergency emails and phone calls. We take breaks to browse the Internet. Co-workers walk into our office for a quick chat, or send us amusing instant messages.
It doesn't matter where you work or what you do, you probably deal with distractions on a daily basis. And these distractions are costly: A 2007 study by Basex estimated that distractions cost U.S. businesses $588 billion per year, and this high cost is likely repeated in organizations around the world.
What's more (and depending on the complexity of our work), regaining concentration after a distraction can take quite a few minutes. If we're distracted 10 times a day, multiply the time lost by 10, and it's easy to see why we sometimes don't get much quality work done.
Learning how to minimize distractions can dramatically increase your productivity and effectiveness, as well as reduce your stress. Without distractions, you can get into flow, produce high-quality work, and achieve much more during the day.
In this article, we'll discuss the most common distractions we face at work, and we'll look at strategies for minimizing or eliminating them.
While email is incredibly useful, it's also one of the biggest work distractions we face. Many of us could spend entire days simply reading and responding to emails.
- Schedule "email" times – Minimize this distraction by scheduling specific times to check and respond to emails. For instance, you could check email when you first arrive at work, at lunch, and right before you leave, and specify a half-hour slot every day to respond to your emails. (If you do this, it may be useful to let co-workers and customers know that they will need to contact you another way if they need you urgently.)
- Check and respond to email at "low productivity" times – Remember that there are certain times of day when you probably do your best work. Some people work best in the morning, and others late at night. Schedule your email check-in during your less-productive times – and save your peak hours for doing creative, high-value work.
- Turn emails into actions – If an email will take more than a few minutes to action or respond to, add it as a new action on your To-Do List or Action Program.
- Keep your email program closed – When you're not using your email program, close it entirely – or at least turn off the visual or audible alerts that distract you. This eliminates the temptation to check it constantly.
- Most email programs will also allow you to fetch new email manually with a "send/receive" button, or will allow you to set it to get new email automatically at certain times of the day (every three hours, for example).
See our article on Managing Email Effectively for more strategies on minimizing the distractions caused by email. Our article Overcoming Information Overload, and our Expert Interview on Managing Email with Mike Song, may also be helpful.
A disorganized desk or office can be very distracting. When your work space or work life is disorganized, it can be difficult to think and plan clearly.
Getting organized is a topic that could easily fill books, and it does! We have several good resources here at Mind Tools.
Our articles How to Be Organized, Actions Programs, The Art of Filing, and The 5S System will help you to organize your office and work life, so you can be more productive – and less distracted – during the day.
Instant Messaging (IM)
Instant messaging can be useful, but many times it's also a way for co-workers to interrupt you without having to get up and walk into your office.
If you use instant messaging (it's very powerful if used in a disciplined way), get into the habit of using it for small, quick queries. It's often better to use email or the phone for more complex ones.
Also, if you find yourself distracted by IM, consider setting specific times during the day for being "online." Then, when you don't want to be contacted, leave it off or set your status to "busy." If people need to contact you, make sure they know your "hours" for IM.
The ring of the phone has become almost like Pavlov's bell for some people - we think we must answer it, even if we're concentrating on something important.
Minimize phone call distractions by turning off your phone during your peak work hours. Or, let your team know that you won't take non-essential calls between specific times, such as from noon to 2 p.m.
Alternatively, get people into the habit of using IM to check with co-workers that they are OK to take a call. If co-workers are deep in concentration, they can ask to "talk in 10 minutes" without losing the thread of their work.
Browsing the web can take up enormous amounts of time from our day, and when we start looking on the Internet for one thing, it's easy to get lost for 20 minutes or more.
- Read the news before the start of the day – Visit news sites or read newspapers before work, so that you know the news. That way, you won't be distracted as much during the day.
- Close your Internet browser – Eliminate Internet distractions by keeping your browser closed when you're not using it. If you repeatedly check personal email, or go on social networking sites like Facebook or Twitter, then log out of your account. If you're forced to take those few extra seconds to log in each time, it may remind you that you're not focusing on work.
- (However, bear in mind that tools like Twitter are increasingly useful for staying in touch with events in your industry. Just make sure that you only check it at set times of the day - for instance, before lunch and at the end of the day.)
- Use special software – There are some useful software applications such as Freedom and Anti-Social that help eliminate online distractions. You can specify which websites you want to block, and set a timer for how long you want the block to remain active. Using technology like this to block access for yourself can be a big help.
- Take short Internet breaks – Remember that taking little breaks, especially after working for an hour or more in deep concentration, can be quite useful for resting your mind. These tiny breaks allow you to return to focus with renewed energy. Use casual Internet browsing as a reward for every hour you devote to high-quality, focused work – and you'll feel as if you've earned the time.
Co-workers often create the greatest distractions.
- Close your door – Close your office door to keep people from casually stopping by. If they knock or come in anyway, explain that when your door is closed, you shouldn't be disturbed unless there's an emergency. A sign on your office door may also help. (If you're a manager, there's clearly a tension between this and – very importantly – making sure that your "door is always open" to members of your team. Consider working from home or in a conference room when you don't want to be disturbed.)
- Use headphones – If you're in a cubicle or open office environment, people are less likely to interrupt you if you're wearing headphones. (You don't even have to be listening to music!)
- Talk to the disrupter – If you share an office with someone who often disrupts your day, talk to the person about the problem: he may not realize he's distracting you. Or, if a co-worker often comes in, sits down, and chats for a while, don't allow her to do it - place a pile of papers on the chair she'd use, or stand up immediately when she comes into your office or cubicle.
Our article Managing Interruptions offers further help on dealing with interruptions by co-workers.
Windows, a busy highway, or loud co-workers may all contribute to a distracting work environment.
- Work in another location – If possible, work in a conference room or empty office to regain your concentration. If your job allows it, working in a different setting, such as at home, at a library, or in a coffee shop, may also help you to focus more.
- Use "white noise" – If noise is a problem, install padded partitions, or consider buying a sound machine that produces white noise to cover annoying sounds. Noise-canceling headphones with soft music can also improve your focus. You can also download white noise files from the Internet and set them on "repeat." Having white noise play constantly helps block unwanted sounds.
Other Projects and Tasks
- Prioritize your To-Do List – Commit to accomplishing the two most important tasks on your list every day.
- Track your day – Pick one day to keep track of everything you spend your time doing. You might discover that you spend five hours managing interruptions and dealing with emergencies, and four hours doing actual work. This assessment would then show you that you have only four productive hours each day to achieve your most important tasks.
- Delegate – Learn how to delegate effectively. This is important for managing an overwhelming list of tasks and projects.
Coming to work well rested is vital to having a productive day.
- Get enough sleep – Many people don't get enough sleep at night. When you're tired, it's very easy to become distracted.
- Stay hydrated – When you don't drink enough water and you become dehydrated, you may not think clearly. Dehydration can also make you feel tired and less alert. Keep a water bottle on your desk, and drink regularly during the day.
- Go for a walk – If you're tired at work, go outside for a walk. Getting some fresh air and moving your body can give you more energy, and can make you feel more alert.
- Watch your diet – Your diet may also influence how tired you feel. For example, avoid heavy lunches – and instead eat smaller, healthy snacks throughout the day.
We all face distractions on a daily basis. Distractions not only lower our productivity, they also increase our stress.
You probably already know what distracts you the most – phone calls, emails, instant messages, Internet browsing, interrupting co-workers, and so on. Strategies like scheduling email checks, turning off your phone, and leaving the office for a quieter environment may eliminate distractions so that you get more done.
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