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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. 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 have compiled a list of 12 of the most common disruptions, along with some helpful tips on how to deal with them…
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 rubber chickens singing Despacito, but it is also a huge productivity killer in the workplace.
In a 2012 survey by Salary, 64 per cent of respondents claimed they visited non-work related websites each day, with Facebook unsurprisingly the most visited site. While bosses might be inclined to wonder why this can’t wait until after work, the truth is it isn’t entirely our own fault.
“The brain is more active when people are anticipating a reward,” says 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?
The first step is to disable access to the sites you visit on your work computer (if they’re not already blocked by your company). If you find that you are then reaching for your smartphone instead, download Freedom, an app designed specifically for procrastinators that temporarily blocks specified apps and websites during working hours.
Nobody wants to appear anti-social, but when you’re ‘in the zone’ and that deadline is looming, the last thing you need is Karen from accounts stopping to ask if you saw Game of Thrones 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 minimise this unwanted attention is to clearly give the impression that you are too busy to talk. If you’re allowed, wear headphones. Try avoiding eye contact when colleagues walk past your desk – this will give the impression that you’re otherwise occupied.
When you’re getting cornered, try to diplomatically bat the conversation away, maybe by suggesting you’re not the best person to talk to about a particular topic. This can be especially difficult when you’re getting handed a juicy nugget of gossip. But be firm – if someone persists, interrupt them and let them know you’re really busy, and that you’ll get back to them as soon as you can.
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 jobs to pile up as calls come in and your original work gets neglected; this is where you need to try and prioritise 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 phone in a drawer or your bag, so that you will be less inclined to check it. And while we’re on the subject, make sure it’s on silent mode too – there is nothing more irritating for your colleagues than the same message tone pinging away all day.
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 so. Whether it be two colleagues giggling away in the break area, the furious typing of a cubicle neighbour’s keyboard, or your manager doing his best Trigger Happy TV impression, it can become hugely frustrating.
This includes outside distractions too; even something as trivial as ambulance sirens, a street drill or a train screeching to a halt can knock you off kilter. So what can you do?
As previously mentioned, headphones are the best option here – especially noise cancelling ones. If you are not permitted to wear headphones, explain the situation to your manager and point out that they are noise cancelling and that you are 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. If none of these are available, and there are no other vacant rooms in the building, then work from home or a quiet location like a library instead.
6. Micromanaging supervisors
Nobody likes a micro-manager 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 minimise 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”.
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 are 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.
For many people, meetings are the bane of the office environment. 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, then you should try to minimise 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 a time limit that is adhered to. It is unlikely that you will be the only person there that has more pressing matters, so the more streamlined the process can be, the better it is for everyone.
This is something that can be easily overlooked, but is hugely important and can have a bigger impact on your productivity than you realise. 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 (as well as being unhealthy); instead, keep a good supply of nutritious and healthy foods close to hand such as almonds, protein bars and fresh fruit from home.
10. Cigarette and/or coffee freaks
Popping away from your desk to grab a coffee or have a cigarette is actually 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 costing the company lost hours.
Many employees would counter this by claiming that regular caffeine hits increase alertness and therefore productivity, but this misses the point (as well as being an unhealthy habit in the long term). If you are not at your desk, then you are not working, and it can take time to refocus and get ‘back in the zone’ when you have been away from your computer.
Bring in a flask of coffee, and restrict your visits to the break area to once in the morning and once in the afternoon. Many companies no longer compensate smokers for their smoke breaks, and they are now expected to make up the time they are away – this could possibly be a good excuse to try and give up.
11. The 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 are too cold or too hot, then that is all you are 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. Eating the frog
This is not to be taken literally, of course. Nobody at CareerAddict endorses the consumption of any live animal, extant amphibian species or otherwise. No, the culinary frog in question is hypothetical and represents the task you’re least looking forward to doing; but by doing it first thing in the morning, you can take satisfaction in the knowledge that it is the worst thing you’ll do that day.
This metaphor, popularised by Brian Tracy in his best-selling anti-procrastination guide (paid link) of the same name, 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.
These are just some of the examples of workplace disruption that you will 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.
Do you have any other tips on how to stay focused at work? Let us know in the comments below…