When you get to work, how many workplace distractions must you deal with before you get started on your daily to-do list? Does your day start with a gauntlet of chatty coworkers sharing the latest gossip? Do you feel compelled to check your social media before you get to your important tasks for the day? Maybe you have certain websites that you just “have to” check.
As your day goes on, do you find unimportant phone calls or text messages disrupting your work? Does your lunchtime Amazon shopping excursion extend into your workday? Are you checking for new email every couple minutes? Do instant messages constantly challenge your already-limited attention span?
A typical office work environment is filled with common distractions like these and lots more. You know they affect your productivity and generally just waste time. As an employee, these time-wasters can seem mostly harmless as long as you get your job done, but are they, really?
The problem with distractions at work
Interestingly, all of these distractions might not actually be the productivity-killers they seem to be. According to a UC Irvine study led by Gloria Mark of UCI’s Department of Informatics, “Surprisingly, people completed interrupted tasks in less time with no difference in quality.”
While that sounds like great news, what the study actually showed might be more problematic than just a lack of productivity. One conclusion was that “working faster with interruptions has its cost: people in the interrupted conditions experienced a higher workload, more stress, higher frustration, more time pressure, and effort.” So although you can still get your work done, your mental health might suffer.
It’s also worth mentioning that the context and duration of the interruption makes a difference. An interruption that is short and still work-related doesn’t have the same impact as a personal phone call, for example.
A survey by online education website Udemy had similar findings. According to their report, 49% of employees felt “happier at work” and 51% said they were “more confident in [their] ability to do [their] job well” when distraction is reduced.
The takeaway here is that focused work makes you a happier worker, and in the long run, that’ll make you more effective—and more likely to get that next promotion you’re aiming for.
It turns out that what Americans find distracting varies significantly according to their age. According to Udemy’s survey, 78% of Millennial and Gen Z workers find “Using tech for personal activities” more distracting than “using work-related tools,” compared to 57% of Gen Xers and only 43% of Boomers.
Across age groups, though, employees seem to agree about one thing—60% of everyone surveyed said that meetings are just another distraction, and even worse, “meetings themselves frequently fall victim to interruptions and distractions.”
How can you minimize common distractions?
Even though being distracted during your most important tasks might not be as disastrous to the task itself as you may have thought, it does clearly impact your personal well-being. In the long run, that does have an effect on your work. So what are some effective ways to prevent them from becoming a problem?
This is one of the old standbys. Even though it won’t get rid of the source of the distraction, it does make it easier to ignore. There are a lot of things people use to drown out the most distracting sounds—fans are one of the most popular, but just about anything that makes a constant, non-fluctuating sound will work.
There are apps and YouTube videos available too, that are specifically intended for this purpose. There are even purpose-built white noise generators available to purchase.
This is far from the perfect solution, though. It turns out that “stress resulting from ongoing white noise can induce the release of cortisol” according to Mark A. W. Andrews, director and professor of physiology at Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine at Seton Hill University (quoted in Scientific American).
Cortisol is commonly referred to as the “stress hormone,” and although it can be beneficial in fight-or-flight situations, it is also associated with a number of negative effects, including high blood pressure and lower cognitive performance.
Just about every office employee uses this one at one time or another. There’s good reason for this—it’s very effective. Noise cancelling varieties, in particular, work quite well at blocking office noise and other unwanted sound.
Not only can they keep the noise out, but they are a great way to let people know that you’re occupied and would rather not be disturbed. And for many people, music can be motivating and even help them to concentrate.
Unfortunately, not every office environment welcomes headphones. If yours does, they can be a great option, but they aren’t without their problems. Not everyone can concentrate with music playing; music with lyrics can be particularly distracting. If you like to turn your music up loud, you could be damaging your hearing. And even at moderate volume levels it’s important to give your eardrums a break; a volume of 89 dB—somewhere between the sound of city traffic and highway traffic—begins to cause hearing damage at about 3 hours.
If you decide to wear headphones as your office-noise-elimination strategy, noise cancelling headphones are your best option. They’ll quiet the noise without the need to raise the volume excessively.
Use the “Pomodoro Technique”
This brilliantly-simple strategy won’t necessarily eliminate workplace disturbances. The idea, envisioned in the ‘80s by Francesco Cirillo, is intended to break your workday into short bursts that Cirillo calls “pomodoros”—an Anglicization of the Italian word for tomatoes. The name comes from the tomato-shaped kitchen timer that he originally used.
With this time management strategy, you work in time chunks of 25 minutes with short breaks of three to five minutes in between. After four pomodoros, you take a longer break of up to 30 minutes and then start again. The idea behind this technique is that peak performance occurs in bursts. You may not be able to give 100% for a full eight hours, five days a week. Most people, however, can do it for a few minutes at a time repeated throughout the workday and week.
The technique works exceedingly well to manage time and work efficiently. In order to use this technique as a way to avoid interruptions, though, it’s necessary to inform your office mates and team members of your strategy. If everyone is willing to cooperate, and understands that your “Pomodoro time” is for important work and that you are not to be disturbed, it can be incredibly effective.
It does require self-control and accommodating team members. The pomodoro technique might not work for every office or every person, but having specific times for focused work as well as for less-important tasks can do wonders for your productivity and your mood.
Using web-based tools
Technology can be a great way to waste time, but there are plenty of tools available to use technology as we’d all like to believe it was intended—to get things done. A quick look at the web store turns up a number of chrome extensions designed to fight low productivity and even to create and reinforce new habits.
There are excellent apps to help manage to-do lists, keep track of important documents, and track your work time, but for those who find social media and certain websites to be just too tempting, an extension called StayFocusd is tailor-made for you. Very simply, it allows you to set a time limit on your social media use. It works to restrict access to any websites you specify, so whatever your online temptation this extension can help.
While any of the above, on its own, will help you to better deal with common office distractions, often the best option is to eliminate them completely. Getting into a quiet space allows you to focus completely on your important work.
This may seem like an obvious solution, but in most offices it’s easier said than done. If you are one of the majority of employees without a private office, quiet space might not be available. You might have access to a conference room on occasion, but you’re probably not the only one who’d like to use it.
It turns out, there’s a technological solution to this problem. Private offices might be ideal, but few companies are willing or able to provide them for every person they employ. The solution many businesses are turning to might actually be an even better one—office phone booths.
These bear little resemblance to the street-corner phone booths that were once common. Rather, they are designed to be private, quiet places to get work done. Companies like Thinktanks design privacy booths as a perfect addition to a modern open office layout.
These “pods” as they are often called give frustrated workers a quiet spot to concentrate. They are well insulated to keep out outside distractions and can be set up nearly anywhere within the office. Thinktanks’ office pods come in multiple sizes, too. The single person phone booths make a good spot to work on solo projects or just to make a quick call on your cell phone, while the two- and four-person models allow for collaborative work without disrupting others.
The booths are also designed for easy assembly on site. No need for a construction crew—just a couple people and a cordless drill are all that’s necessary. Thinktanks says that their conference booths can be assembled in just an hour or two, so you might even get one together during your lunchtime.
How are chatty coworkers, frequent instant messages, lack of self-control and other distractions affecting your work? Ever face challenges with completing a task simply because you keep getting interrupted? Have you tried our solutions, or come up with methods of your own? Let us hear about it in the comments.