15 Biggest Workplace Distractions and How to Avoid Them

Oh, look! A squirrel!

Reviewed by Chris Leitch

Biggest Workplace Distractions

Let’s face it: it’s easy to get distracted at work. Amongst the spreadsheets and the conference calls, the temptation to scroll through Facebook and waste 20 minutes chuckling at memes can sometimes be too much. Or if it’s not Facebook, it’s a quick look at the celebrity gossip column — anything to avoid the boss’s latest “synergy in action” email. In fact, you’re probably procrastinating right now as you read this.

But what can you do to curb the many distractions that present themselves in the workplace, and stay on top of your work? Luckily, we’ve compiled a list of 15 of the most common disruptions, along with some helpful tips on how to deal with them.

How workplace distractions affect productivity

Workplace distractions can impact productivity and efficiency, not just on an individual level, but on a teamwide level, too. That’s because they:

  • Interrupt your train of thought when you’re concentrating. This costs you time afterwards, trying to pick up from where you left. And if you had stood on the brink of a genius idea before, it might never come back to you.
  • Make it hard to stay focused. You won’t be able to concentrate if all your brain can think about is watching one more episode of Is it Cake?. This can make you likelier to forget things or make mistakes, which then impacts your ability to collaborate.
  • Make you worried or agitated. If you’re doom-scrolling on social media instead of working, ingesting bad news for hours on end, this will affect your mood and, consequently, your output at work.
  • Hurt your self-esteem as a professional. Confidence plays a vital role in your career development; when you’re constantly distracted and missing your deadlines, however, your sense of self-worth starts to suffer.

The most common distractions at work

Workplace distractions can be grouped into two categories: ones that are external, such as noisy coworkers, and ones that are internal and start with the individual, such as fatigue. Let’s look at the 15 most common ones!

1. Social media

Social media may have transformed our lives, connected us in ways we couldn’t have possibly imagined, and given us unprecedented access to videos of cats knocking things off counters, but it’s also a huge productivity killer in the workplace.

According to statistics by Zippia, we spend, on average, 12% of our working hours being unproductive on social media. “The brain is more active when people are anticipating a reward,” explains psychiatrist Susan Weinschenk. “In the digital age, we have tools such as Facebook that allow us to satisfy our information seeking cravings with instant gratification”.

So, if our biological cravings for cat videos outweigh our propensity for Excel formulas, what should we do? A good step is to disable access to the sites you visit on your work computer (if they’re not already blocked by your company), as well as on your smartphone.

2. Chatty coworkers

Nobody wants to appear antisocial, but when you’re “in the zone” and that deadline is looming, the last thing you need is Kevin from accounting stopping to ask if you watched ONE PIECE last night. Even if it is work-related, dropping everything you’re doing to talk can throw you right off your game.

The key to stop (or at least minimize) this unwanted attention is to give the impression that you are too busy to talk. If you can, wear headphones. Try avoiding eye contact when coworkers walk past your desk — this will give the impression that you’re otherwise occupied.

3. The office phone

Constant calls from other departments are one of the biggest barriers to getting your work done, especially if the calls relate to urgent tasks that require an immediate answer. It is very easy for tasks to pile up as calls come in and your original work gets neglected; this is where you need to try and prioritize and complete your tasks before it gets too much.

If this means not answering the phone until you’ve caught up, then so be it. But make sure you set a voicemail that explains to people that you will get back to them as soon as possible — and then try to do exactly that.

4. Your personal phone

Sometimes it’s difficult to leave your personal baggage at the office door. There may be important things going on at home, and you may need to take certain calls or answer certain messages. That’s fine. But when you’re checking the group chat every five minutes or ringing your partner to find out what’s for dinner, it can become a distraction.

Unless you’re expecting an important call, put your cell phone in a drawer or your bag so that you’ll be less inclined to check it. And while we’re on the subject, make sure it’s on “Do Not Disturb” mode, too — there is nothing more irritating for your coworkers than the same message tone pinging away all day.

5. Noise

Which brings us to our next point. Noise is one of the worst causes of disruption in the workplace, and it comes in many forms — some intentional, and some not. Whether it be two coworkers giggling away in the break area, the furious typing of a cubicle neighbor’s keyboard or your manager doing his best Trigger Happy TV impression, it can become hugely frustrating. So, what can you do?

As mentioned, headphones are the best option — especially noise-canceling ones. If you’re not permitted to wear headphones, explain the situation to your manager and point out that they are noise-cancelling and that you’re not listening to music.

Alternatively, if a project is time-sensitive or particularly complex, find somewhere quiet away from your cubicle where you know you can work in peace. Many modern offices have rooms designed specifically for this that you can book in advance.

6. Micromanaging supervisors

Nobody likes a micromanager at the best of times, but especially when you’re busy. Having to deal with an irritating boss that constantly pesters you for updates can become hugely frustrating.

Careers expert Andy Teach claims you should take the initiative to try and minimize the disruption. “You can’t tell your boss not to disrupt you,” he says. “So, constantly communicate with them on the status of your projects. If you keep them informed, it lessens their need to micromanage you and creates fewer distractions”.

7. Emails

Unlike phone calls, emails are not as immediate a distraction, but they can still take your mind off what you were originally supposed to be doing. However much you’d like to, it is unwise to ignore emails as they come in, so turning off notifications should be a no-go; you can easily get an idea from the subject notification if it is urgent or not, though, and anything that isn’t can wait until later.

If you see something that you need to follow up on, make sure you flag the email so that you don’t forget later on. If you’re working on something that is absolutely top priority and nothing else could possibly be more urgent, then you can even set an automatic reply letting people know that you’re sorry but you’re more or less unavailable and that you will get back to them.

8. Meetings

There is nothing more annoying than sitting through a boring meeting about the work that you need to do, instead of actually doing said work. Even worse is when you have a shedload of tasks that needs completing, but you’re dragged into an hour-long gathering because one of the partners from head office is in town and “wants to see how the team is doing”.

Of course, this isn’t always the case, and most good managers will avoid calling unnecessary meetings, but even then, it can disrupt your work. If you’re focused on an important, time-sensitive project, you should specify this on your calendar and, more often than not, your absence will be excused.

If you just can’t get out of it though, you should try to minimize the amount of time spent away from your desk. Depending on your position try to appoint a leader who can keep things on topic and discourage waffling, and suggest that a time limit is adhered to.

9. Hunger

This is something that can be easily overlooked, but it’s hugely important and can have a bigger impact on your productivity than you realize. There is nothing worse for your concentration than sitting at your desk with a growling stomach, counting down the minutes to lunch — this is why managing your food intake can be just as important as having a handle on your workflow.

Most nutritionists would probably advise against constant snacking throughout the day, but eating something between breakfast and lunch, and again in the mid-afternoon should be fine, and should keep your hunger demons at bay. Be careful what you eat though. Sugar-heavy foods can cause spikes and crashes in your concentration; instead, keep a good supply of nutritious and healthy foods close to hand such as almonds, protein bars and fresh fruit.

10. Cigarette and coffee breaks

Popping away from your desk to grab a coffee or have a cigarette is not a bad thing; it’s good to refresh yourself and have a few minutes where you’re not staring at a computer screen. But when you’re doing it regularly, it can become a major disruption to your productivity, as well as cost the company lost hours.

As calculated by Omni Calculator, a worker who pauses their work 3 times a day to take a 15-minute cigarette break ends up wasting more than 16 hours at work each month. That adds up to over seven working days lost each year. So, bring in your own flask of coffee and restrict your visits to the break area to once in the morning and once in the afternoon.

11. The office environment

This is another distraction that is less explicit but can still affect your concentration. It might seem silly to complain about heating and lighting, but if you’re too cold or too hot, then that’s all you’re thinking about. At the same time, if the glare of the sun is in your eyes or reflecting off your computer screen, you won’t be able to focus properly.

It may be common sense, but ensure that the temperature is acceptable for everybody and that you can see your screen clearly without any distraction.

12. The frog

This is not to be taken literally, of course. The “frog” in question is hypothetical, not a live amphibian, and represents the task you’re least looking forward to doing. But by doing it first thing in the morning (or “eating the frog”), you can take satisfaction in the knowledge that it is the worst thing you’ll do that day.

This metaphor, popularized by Brian Tracy in his bestselling anti-procrastination guide Eating the Frog is an effective way of saying that you should take on your most difficult task when your energy and concentration levels are at their highest. By “eating the frog”, the hardest part of your day is already done, and you’ve got the added bonus of momentum going forward.

13. The internet

We’ve talked about social media impacting our productivity in the workplace, but there are countless more ways to waste time while surfing the net. Listening to your favorite fitness podcast, for example. Or watching a TED Talk on how to fix your life. Or going down one of those never-ending, perilous Google search rabbit holes.

And even if you block certain apps on your phone, you’ll still have access to the internet on your work computer. It’s just not possible to block every single website out there; not to mention how time-consuming it would be. It’s best to consider where your procrastination is stemming from, instead: are you feeling overwhelmed or underchallenged in your role?

14. Feeling tired or unwell

A chilly office will make it hard to concentrate. A noisy one will do the same. But what if the problem isn’t your surroundings and it’s, instead, your own body or mind?

According to the Sleep Foundation, employee fatigue is costing businesses billions each year. Hampered productivity and motivation, combined with healthcare costs related to tiredness, cost employers around $2,000 a year per employee.

Likewise, if you aren’t eating properly and don’t make time for exercise, hobbies and socializing, you’re going to feel it. Right in your 9 to 5.

15. Office pets

News in Health reports that interacting with animals can decrease our stress levels, boost our mood and make us feel less lonely. Allow animals in the workplace, then, and you’ll instantly have staff that feels happier and more relaxed — which boosts productivity by 13%, according to research by Oxford University.

What happens, however, when too many people bring in their dogs, and they all start barking at once? Or what happens if an employee is allergic or scared to death of guinea pigs? You guessed it: it gets incredibly distracting.

For your office pets policy to work, make sure everyone on the team is on board (and that you have an air purifier or two handy). In addition, consider implementing a “maximum number of dogs per day” and having your team coordinate among themselves about whose fur baby comes in when.

How to handle distractions at work

There are many ways to navigate distractions at work. Let’s look at a few!

  • Schedule in intentional breaks. Work for an hour and then pause for a while to stretch, chat with a coworker or read one more article on banana ketchup. That is, be mindful: when you work, work; when you rest, rest.
  • Consider what’s causing your impulse to waste time. Is your role getting stagnant? Is there a personal matter in your life that needs sorting out but you’re avoiding it?
  • Remind yourself of your goals. What aspirations do you have, and why do they matter? Regaining sight of what’s important to you can help you stay motivated.
  • Think of the reward. Doing a good job isn’t just rewarding in itself; good performance can allow you to negotiate a raise or promotion more easily.
  • Use technology against technology. That’s right! Block your most irresistible websites on your PC, and do the same for the apps on your phone.
  • Prioritize your health and wellbeing outside of work. The better you feel, the better you’ll concentrate; and the fewer TikToks you’ll need to watch to get through the day.

Key takeaways

These are just some of the examples of workplace disruption that you’ll no doubt have come across. Offices are busy environments and, even when you want to shut yourself off and focus, it can be difficult. But by following these tips, you can make life just a little bit easier for yourself, and produce high quality work that benefits the company and does your own promotion chances no harm!

To summarize:

  • The effects of workplace distractions can be felt on an individual as well as a teamwide level; that is, even if one person is frequently distracted, it can have repercussions on everyone.
  • Social media and internet browsing more generally are among the biggest distractions at work. And when you work with computers all day, they can be the hardest to manage.
  • If any and all visual distractions appear interesting to you, even if that’s the garbage truck outside your window, consider if there might be more to your seeking out distractions than meets the eye.

Do you have any more things to add to our list of workplace distractions? Let us know in the comments section below — after you’ve submitted that report that’s still pending!

Originally published on December 26, 2017. Contains contributions by Siôn Phillpott.